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Conservation that’s ’good for the bird and the herd’

Gunnison Sage-Grouse needs ranchers, conservationists to restore its habitat
Patrick B. Newcombe

The Gunnison Sage-Grouse, named for the community blessed with the stronghold of its tiny population, struts on the brink of extinction.

The iconic, chubby bird with long, pointed tail feathers occurs in only seven populations living in the sagebrush habitats of Southwest Colorado and southeastern Utah.

But ranchers and conservationists have an opportunity to help sagebrush country by uniting to restore and preserve the habitat cattle and birds share.

The species is declining because of habitat destruction: loss of sagebrush, key to not only ecosystems, but also to ranching, hunting and recreation. During westward expansion, settlers grazed unchecked, beating, chaining and obliterating sagebrush. Flowered meadows became barren desert, lacking the lush graze lands where sage-grouse raise their chicks.

As early as 1934, a Forest Service report made to Congress found grazing capacity halved, describing “no darker chapter nor greater tragedy in the history of land occupancy and use” in the United States. Today, accelerating droughts and changing snowmelt, worsened by climate change, parch sagebrush country further.

Another threat looms. Nature abhors a vacuum, so after disturbance – fire, overgrazing or even oil drilling – invasive plants like cheatgrass invade. Cheatgrass burns intensely, destroying more sagebrush, which can take over 75 years to recover, and decimating cattle forage and game habitat. Drought and climate change exacerbate burns.

As conservationists and many ranchers have known since 1934, ranchers need healthy public lands to keep production strong. In Gunnison, many turn their cows out while letting hay grow. When public lands fail, they lose ranching value as well as value to elk and deer hunters. Even homeowners lose, their views marred, facing increased risk of dangerous, costly fire.

But fortunately, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a plan that ranchers and other members of communities like Gunnison can embrace to stop destruction of sagebrush country and return management to local levels by pulling sage-grouse off the brink. While imperfect, it offers a road map for delisting from the status of “threatened” on the Endangered Species Act, so those who opposed listing should support the plan’s implementation. But the funding simply falls short. Congress never fully funded the law.

Integral to delisting is habitat recovery. Even without adequate endangered species funding, local biologists, county commissioners and conservationists know something they can do more – build simple, rock structures that hold water on the land, recharging lush meadows that feed sage-grouse, cattle, deer and elk. Who knew ranchers and environmentalists in Gunnison agreed on water management?

But restoration may need to go further by regrowing sagebrush. Massive seed banks, aerial drops and more research all could help. This is the natural infrastructure we must rebuild.

Doing so is expensive. And that’s why anyone interested in delisting, whether a conservationist, rancher or resident weary of thinking about sage-grouse, should support sweeping habitat restoration through re-envisioning the Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC will create habitat and jobs, while preventing fire through Sen. Michael Bennet’s Outdoor Restoration Partnership Act. My visit with a county commissioner suggests Gunnison welcomes such steps, arms wide.

Beyond funding, common-sense measures must ensure all ranchers are the good stewards many are voluntarily. Swaths of historically overgrazed land, worsened by weakened, unenforced grazing controls, should be allowed to rejuvenate forage. Cattle’s role in introducing cheatgrass (not to mention methane-emitting digestive processes, worsening climate change) should be monitored responsively: cows used strategically to eat sprouting cheatgrass and moved from key areas to protect rearing chicks, which need cover from predators. Healthy practices ensure ranching’s viability for the industry’s lifespan.

And, for habitat restoration to work, destruction must stop. Counties need to implement or strengthen land ordinances and seasonal closures, and the BLM must stop public land development and degradation through management plans. Ranchers, conservationists and concerned citizens must advocate for these changes to county representatives and BLM field offices. Otherwise, especially in fragile, outlying populations, declines could continue, triggering an “endangered” listing. Better to restore and preserve habitat for the Gunnison Sage-Grouse now.

Let’s deal ranchers a fair hand, assisting with restoration that creates food for cows. The current opening to steward sagebrush country aligns with a trope that ranchers and conservationists alike repeat: “What’s good for the bird is good for the herd.”

Patrick B. Newcombe is directing and producing a film about Gunnison Sage-Grouse conservation while living in McCall, Idaho. He is producing the film with a cohort of fellow students from Princeton University.

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