Where the sage grouse roam, Part II: Ranching for conservation
June 26, 2015
Craig — On a cold, April morning, nearly 170 sage grouse males convene in a dormant rye field in northern Moffat County with their tail feathers held high and white, feathery chests proudly puffed.
Driven by testosterone and deeply rooted instincts, the male birds gather at annual mating grounds known as leks, alternatively described as both a dance floor and a singles bar for sage grouse. They come seeking to mate.
Their dance moves are otherworldly, as they heave, inhale and exert themselves to fill the two air sacks on their chests so they can release them in a loud pop. The scene can get brutal, as males fight and chase each other to compete for the hens' attention. In the end, only a small percentage of them will mate with the hens watching from the safety of the nearby sagebrush.
The rye field that plays host to this ancient performance belongs to rancher Wes McStay and his brother, Mark McStay, who run about 200 cattle on about 5,500 deeded acres, plus additional permitted acres on federal lands and through private leases. The pair leaves the field to the birds in the spring when the mating season commences, grazing their cattle elsewhere so as not to disturb them. They also employ careful rotational grazing year-round to ensure good habitat for sage grouse on the rest of their land.
The brothers grew up on the ranch they now operate, which their parents bought in 1962.
"I guess from my earliest memories, there's been sage grouse around," McStay said. "The birds would actually strut on the county road."
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McStay's parents would drive him and his brother to school in Baggs, Wyoming every morning and would actually have to stop the car for the grouse and weave their way through them.
"And it really made an impression on me, because they really are beautiful. The more you learn about them, you just have to admire them for they're toughness and how they survived hundreds of thousands and maybe millions of years out here," McStay said.
However, 200 years of settlement and increasing development have left their mark on the sagebrush ecosystem the birds call home, and sage grouse numbers have taken a dive. Wildlife biologists are hopeful, nonetheless, that the past two years of marked growth in Colorado's sage grouse populations indicate a turn in the right direction and perhaps, even, reflect years of concerted conservation efforts.
Preserving landscape and grouse
About one third of sage grouse habitat lies on private land across its 11-state range, however more than half of Colorado's sage grouse habitat resides on private land with the majority of it used for ranching.
An even higher percentage of wetland areas lie on private lands, which are key to the survival of sage grouse chicks that depend on grasses and insects to grow and thrive.
"The private land is where all the water is," said Brian Rutledge, vice president and policy advisor for National Audubon Society's Rocky Mountain region. "Over 70 percent of the wetlands in the West are in private hands."
While government agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, have crafted their own plans to protect the grouse on federal lands, conservation efforts are incomplete without the help of private landowners.
Moffat County is well ahead of the conservation curve, having formed its own sage grouse working group made up largely of ranchers in 1997, which is when McStay became actively engaged in efforts to protect the bird.
In 2010, the Sage Grouse Initiative was launched by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service in response to Fish and Wildlife deciding the bird warranted federal protection. SGI aims to promote conservation efforts among landowners through a variety of methods, such as:
• creating sustainable grazing plans through improved infrastructure, including bringing water to previously dry pastures,
• conservation easements to permanently protect thousands of acres of ranch land, and
• re-vegetating former rangeland with sagebrush and native grasses.
"We allow ranchers to be more sustainable. Keeping these guys on the landscape is one of the main goals of SGI," said Chris Yarbrough, range and wildlife conservationist with NRCS in Moffat County. "Being able to support private landowners and helping them stay on their land is key to maintaining their landscapes."
Ranching is considered a fundamentally compatible land use with sage grouse conservation in management plans rolled out by the BLM at the end of May.
"The plan acknowledges that well-managed livestock operations and greater sage grouse are compatible," according to a presentation by Erin Jones, Northwest district National Environmental Policy Act coordinator for BLM Colorado. "Forage availability for livestock and hiding cover for (sage grouse) are both dependent on healthy plant communities."
Ranching alone holds that distinction in contrast to other land uses such as oil, gas and wind energy development, mineral extraction, and transmission lines or pipelines, all of which inherently disturb habitat and can only be minimized or mitigated.
Not only is ranching compatible with sage grouse conservation, but many argue that the ranching tradition is necessary to the survival of the species by maintaining vast tracts of wide open sagebrush lands.
"The big empty. Wild country," McStay said of the land. "And the sage grouse, they're an icon of it, of the West."
The West is home to countless multi-generational ranches, which run in size from several thousand to more than 100,000 acres in size.
Just as the sage grouse is faced with myriad challenges to its survival, so is the family ranch, which is disappearing throughout the West due to impossibly high estate taxes, estate planning challenges, and younger generations leaving the ranch for a more modern lifestyle.
The result is often subdivision of the ranch into smaller, more highly developed parcels, breaking up the vast tracts of uninterrupted landscapes afforded by the large, working ranch.
"We need to understand, these are the people that hold this land together," Rutledge said. "We're dependent on them and they're dependent on us."
Ranching for conservation in Northwest Colorado
McStay is one of more than 1,100 ranchers across the greater sage grouse's 11-state range who has signed up with SGI to implement conservation measures in the name of preserving the bird and other wildlife. SGI, currently represented in Craig by Yarbrough, has worked with 15 Northwest Colorado ranchers since its inception in 2010.
"Rotational (cattle) grazing, I think, is one of the most beneficial things for grouse," McStay said. "One of the things we've been working on is water development, where you can actually concentrate the animals into a larger herd into a single pasture and then when that's grazed, you move 'em…"
The cattle stay on a single pasture for a few days or weeks and then the McStays move them to the next grazing spot. In so doing, the native plant life has a chance to recover, thereby providing nourishment and the necessary ground cover that sage grouse and other wildlife need.
In order to make this kind of grazing plan possible, Yarbrough has helped McStay install pipelines and tanks to distribute water from a well on his property to several different pastures. Water is one of the biggest limiting factors that dictate where ranchers can move livestock, Yarbrough said.
"In this county, a lot of the people I've been working with are pretty limited as to when and where they can graze by water, so they can have good intentions of wanting to do a rotational grazing system or resting certain pastures or deferring others, but a lot of times it comes down to when they have water and where they have it," Yarbrough said.
By making water available in pastures that were once dry, ranchers can let pastures with better water resources rest. Yarbrough also often helps ranchers install additional fences to subdivide pastures so livestock can be more easily rotated throughout the range.
"You can actually force cattle to go back and graze the side of the pasture that was never grazed before and leave this side of the pasture alone that's close to this lek here," McStay said.
Perhaps due in part to his conservation efforts and those of his neighbor, Keith Pankey, the lek that sits on McStay's rye fields is the largest in Colorado.
NRCS supplies not only the expertise and guidance to help implement conservation measures, but it also offers cost-sharing on projects for ranchers who meet the eligibility requirements. The measures can ultimately benefit the rancher and their herd as much as they benefit the grouse.
"A lot of people… just know they want to manage their property better and improve grazing management," Yarbrough said. "It just happens to meet the needs of sage grouse, leaving more residual cover on the ground. It's all accomplishing the same goals."
When not managed well, livestock can have a detrimental impact on sage grouse habitat. Too many livestock left too long on a particular pasture can strip the land of the grasses and sagebrush that grouse rely on for food and ground cover. As ground birds, they need sufficient sagebrush growth to provide protection from predators and weather.
Livestock can also damage wetland areas if left untended. Animals naturally congregate where water is plentiful, but can trample delicate plant life and compromise the integrity of the waterway.
Besides rotational grazing and developing water sources, other sustainable grazing practices implemented throughout the range include:
• Managing herd size;
• Protecting riparian areas, or wetlands, that are crucial for nesting and raising chicks,
• Keeping livestock clear of leks and surrounding areas during the spring mating season,
• Creating a rotation that not only allows pasture to rest seasonally, but to rest for a full year or more in between use.
Permanent protection for the land
From 2010 through 2014, SGI has worked with private landowners to restore 4.4 million acres of habitat in working landscapes throughout the West and has invested a total of $425 million, according to a February NRCS progress report.
Another tool it has utilized to put permanent protections in place for sage grouse habitat is conservation easements.
"A conservation easement is a restriction placed on a piece of property to protect its associated resources," according to The Nature Conservancy website.
Easements are legally binding agreements that limit how land can be used or prevent it from being developed. In essence, it allows a landowner to donate or sell off the right to develop their land to a conservation organization, creating protections that are usually permanent on that land.
Between 2010 and 2014, SGI added 361,984 acres in conservation easements West-wide to NRCS's roster, "providing vast tracts of working lands that anchor sage-grouse conservation in perpetuity," according to the NRCS report.
Approximately 80 percent of those acres lie in priority sage grouse habitat, the report said.
The number of acres in conservation easements in Moffat County is growing, according to news announced Wednesday that The Nature Conservancy will secure more than 25,000 acres of the Visintainer ranch — most of it prime sage grouse habitat — in an easement with more than $2 million in funds from Great Outdoors Colorado, a lottery-funded program focused on protecting open space.
Another large easement was acquired by the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust in December on about 16,000 acres of the Cross Mountain ranch located in western Moffat County.
"I think there's more and more demand for easements," Yarbrough said. "I think the demand is so much there's not even enough money."
New regulations for ranchers are livable
The BLM plan released in May contains a new set of proposed regulations for sage grouse habitat on federal lands. The plan's protest period closes Monday and is expected to be finalized and put into practice by late July or August.
Because BLM manages only federal land, the new plan has no direct impact on private land, however stipulations set in ranchers' BLM grazing permits can affect how they run their livestock operation overall.
For most ranchers, the plan does not dictate major changes. Restrictions put in place by the plan would require that ranchers avoid leks when putting in new fences or other features, keep livestock from overrunning wetland areas and control the timing and intensity of grazing in sage grouse habitat.
The BLM plan, McStay can live with, he said, but he and many ranchers are leary of the possibility of a listing of the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.
"I don't want 'em listed, I'd much rather let's do it cooperatively, try a different way," McStay said. "No one person or agency can save the grouse, they range too far and wide…. It's got to be a cooperative effort across the board."