Sunday, April 6, 2008

Ranching for sage grouse

Star-Tribune staff writer

A light snow falls, dusting the sage brush with a coat of white. With cattle to feed and several heifers about to have their first calves, it's a typical busy day for Stacey Scott on the Eagle Ridge Ranch outside Casper.

During his lunch break he gazes out the window of his ranch house watching the falling snow swirl in the wind.

"It's a good sign," says the 60-year-old rancher who's hopeful that this winter's good precipitation may bring some relief from years of drought.

The Scott family has been ranching for more than 50 years on the Eagle Ridge Ranch near the North Platte River at Bessemer Bend and since the early 1970s on the Two-Bar Ranch at Bate's Hole.

The Two-Bar is one of the greatest strongholds of the West for the sage grouse, a bird that's in peril throughout much of its historic range. The birds and their strutting areas, called leks, are plentiful on the ranch's open spaces. Year after year they mate, nest and raise their young undisturbed on the Two-Bar.

Scott is an avid birdwatcher. Birding is in his blood. His father, Dr. Oliver Scott, founded the first Wyoming Audubon Society chapter in the 1950s. Like his father and brothers, Stacey Scott is a sage grouse enthusiast.

"They are just fascinating birds. They really should be the state emblem, not the bucking cowboy," he says. "They're so unique. What other bird gains weight during winter just eating sagebrush? They're just fascinating. I like all birds, but the sage grouse is just very special to me. To some extent they're a symbol of the health of the range."

As a rancher and bird expert he knows as well as anyone how the fates of the ranching industry and the sage grouse are linked. The failure of one could spell doom for the other.

"Ranchers can do an awful lot for the sage grouse. Probably the biggest thing they do is just provide the open space," Scott says. "About 75 percent of the sage grouse are on private lands. The best lands were homesteaded. Those are also the best lands for the sage grouse."

Saving sage grouse -- and preventing an Endangered Species Act listing for the bird -- may be up to ranchers like the Scott family who can provide the vast tracts of sagebrush habitat the birds need to survive.

Scott is chairman of the Bate's Hole/Shirley Basin Sage Grouse Working Group, one of several regional task forces in the state comprised of government representatives and private citizens who are trying to find ways to conserve habitat for the troubled species.

While sage grouse remain fairly numerous in Wyoming, the birds are growing dangerously scarce in surrounding states. The federal government is currently reviewing whether the greater sage grouse warrants listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Sage grouse have been called the "spotted owl of the Interior West" for the fearful changes an endangered species listing could bring to energy and agricultural interests. A listing would require designating critical habitat across several states for the plump bird of the prairie that's known for its showy springtime courtship displays during the mating season. A federal listing could severely limit human activities in the birds' habitat, potentially impacting oil and gas drilling, urban development, recreation and ranching.

Sage grouse require several miles of relatively undisturbed habitat of sagebrush, nesting cover, leafy forbs and insects for their chicks to eat during their first few fragile weeks of life. The birds tend to disappear from areas where cities and roads are sprawling out and from lands that are fragmented by oil and gas developments.

A big part of saving the sage grouse rests on the shoulders of landowners who raise livestock on the huge ranches of Wyoming, Scott says. The open spaces they provide may be the last hope for the imperiled bird.

For every ranch that fails and is sold off to build subdivisions and "ranchettes," that's one more nail in the coffin for the sage grouse -- potential habitat that is lost forever.

No silver bullet

When the bald eagle was listed as an endangered species, authorities banned the pesticide DDT and the birds began to recover. There is no single approach like that known to science for recovering sage grouse, Scott says.

They're a complex bird and scientists are still figuring out what the best ways are to recover their habitat. The loss of sagebrush ecosystems is mostly to blame for the birds' demise. How to bring back the birds' habitat is up for debate.

"There are a lot of unknowns about the grouse. There's more to grouse than you might think," Scott says.

An Endangered Species Act listing would not only be disastrous for ranchers, it could also worsen matters for the species itself, he says.

An ESA listing could give the federal government sweeping powers to dictate what land users can and can't do in sage grouse habitat. The problem with that, Scott says, is that there is no real consensus among scientists and land managers on what's best for restoring the bird.

"If everybody did the same thing, what happens if we're wrong?"

For example, he says, a knee-jerk reaction among environmental groups is that livestock grazing is bad for sage grouse.

"Everybody has a theory but they don't have the data to back it up. Some people say grazing is why there's no sage grouse. I'll show you leks that have disappeared because there was no grazing."

On the Two-Bar Ranch, the Scotts have found that intense, short-term grazing actually helps the birds. The number of sage grouse are up on the ranch since they've begun a rotational grazing system, in which their livestock vigorously feed and trample a certain area for a few weeks a year. The activity stimulates the growth of forbs which attract insects that the birds' chicks need to eat for survival, he says.

Scott admits that there is no scientific data yet to prove rotational grazing always works, but as a rancher who's on the land day after day he's seen its success. The birds are flourishing on the Two-Bar.

"Anybody can shoot holes in the data. But the only places in the last 20 years that have had the most sage grouse in the country are on private lands on ranches in Evanston and Bate's Hole. Both have rotational grazing."

More grazing or less grazing, burning or not burning to restore sage brush, more grasses for nesting cover or more forbs for insects -- debates over what's best for sage grouse are seemingly endless. That's why now is not the time for an ESA listing, he says.

"Every ranch and situation may be different. More research is needed on what habitat the birds need and what land users can do. There's no one out there who has the right answer."

Searching for answers

The Shirley Basin/Bate's Hole Sage Grouse Working Group is one of several local groups in the state that provide funding for research and habitat-improvement projects for sage grouse.

"We have more sage grouse in Wyoming than any other state. We have more habitat than any other state. The answer is going to come from here," Scott says.

Instead of one sweeping approach, the kind an ESA listing could bring, "hundreds of little projects" are needed over several years to improve sage grouse habitat in the West and find definitive answers for what's best for the bird, he says.

"There's no silver bullet. Rangeland things take a very long time. It took 30 years to get the grouse down where they are now. It's going to take 30 years to bring them back."

Meanwhile years of drought, lagging beef prices and other pressures threaten the West's ranching industry as it struggles to survive. Ranchers must stay in business, Scott says, if the sage grouse is going to make it.

"The bottom line is keeping open spaces is more important than anything we can do. Putting in houses and roads you remove the sage grouse and that's permanent.

You've got to keep the open spaces."

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