Brad Phelps remembers sage grouse numbering in the hundreds in the uplands of his family's 700-acre cattle ranch when he was a teenager. "Twenty years later, it was 12 birds," Phelps says.
But Phelps, a fourth-generation rancher in the Gunnison Valley and a member of the Colorado Wildlife Commission, doesn't think the grouse's problems can be attributed to cattle grazing. He believes cattle are good for grouse.
"I've seen baby sage grouse pecking at an overturned cow flop," he says. Fledgling grouse feed exclusively on insects for their first several weeks of life, and cow flops can be rich havens for some insect species. Phelps believes grouse evolved with bison herds centuries ago and learned to feed off dung piles. (Bison evidently did inhabit the Gunnison Valley, although not many other sage lands of the Intermountain West.)
Phelps says he finds grouse in hay corrals and around salt licks, where the ground is trampled and covered with cow flops. "That's heavily impacted by livestock. I might be 100 percent wrong, and cows are bad for sage grouse. I just do not believe it from what I've seen on this particular piece of property my whole life."
"There's not much research out there, to be honest," says Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association in Arvada. "We and many people in the industry have a belief that (grouse decline) really hasn't been looked at effectively enough to see if it's a grazing issue, or more likely a predator issue."
But many biologists say, publicly if they can, quietly if they must, that the cow is well documented as the single greatest threat to sage grouse. That view is shared by some environmentalists, who say study after study points to impacts from both grazing and land management that accommodates grazing: reduced biodiversity, erosion, soil compaction, lowered water tables, introduction of weed species, shrub encroachment, competition for forage, trampling of nesting sites and forage, and so on.
"There's probably more written about sage grouse than there is on almost any species in the United States," says Mark Salvo, an Oregon-based grasslands and desert advocate for American Lands, a national environmental group. Pressed, Salvo produces a four-page list of scientific papers on grazing's impacts on sage grouse.
In particular, cattle like to eat the tasty wildflowers - "the ice cream plants" - that provide food and nesting cover for grouse in sagebrush habitat, says Andy Kerr, an advisor to American Lands.
It's hard for government biologists to speak their minds about grazing impacts, says Clait Braun, a retired Colorado state wildlife biologist who runs Grouse, Inc., a consulting firm in Tucson. The decline of grouse is a result of "a complexity of factors," he says, but "if you had to put your finger on one series of factors, it would be the management of Western rangelands to benefit livestock grazing.
"I don't want to force grazing off; I do think there's got to be a real modification of grazing regimes," Braun says.
But even the basic statistics on cattle and grouse can be interpreted differently. During the past 50 years or so, the number of cattle on the range in the West has been reduced somewhat, even as sage grouse have declined. "We know we had healthier grouse populations when we had more cows on the range," says Tom France, head of the National Wildlife Federation's Northern Rockies office in Missoula, Mont. "We don't think the science supports (taking all cattle off the range) at this point."
Biologist Michele Sewolt, who helps run a Gunnison Valley nonprofit which is trying to carry out a grouse conservation plan, says the habitat needs more time to heal, and that more cattle should be removed: "Until we cut things down to zero (cows) and give the land an opportunity to recoup - and ... with sagebrush areas we're talking 20, 30, 50 years - the habitat is not going to recoup."
A cow pie experimentPhelps would like a chance to prove that cattle and grouse can be positively linked. He runs about 250 cow-calf pairs on 12,500 acres of BLM land, practicing holistic resource management and moving his cattle often. He wants to conduct an experiment in which cows are introduced aggressively into grouse brood areas during early spring, to "get the cow flops on the ground and see what that did for chick survival."
Phelps is already an example of how ranchers are not necessarily enemies of the conservation effort. He helped found the Gunnison Sage Grouse Working Group in 1995, then dropped out after two years, claiming it had become "nothing more than a tool against grazing." Now he's mellowed on the group's efforts. He says he supports the idea of local decision-making, but also supports federally listing the Gunnison sage grouse as a threatened or endangered species. The problem is too complex to be handled entirely in any local jurisdiction, he says.
"I do think sage grouse are savable, and they're worth saving," says Phelps, "but it's going to take some federal agencies with courage to take some risks and take some chances, and it's going to have to be long-term. It's scary to get more government in here. But I really, truly believe that we can show due diligence, that we are trying to help the grouse."