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Sage-Grouse in Montana
Sage-Grouse Adult Male Sage-Grouse

It's the evening of March 5, 2002, and about a dozen members of the Montana Sage-Grouse Working Group have gathered at The Mint bar and grill in Lewistown, Montana.

The group met from early afternoon until late in the day, at the Lewistown FWP office, trying to hammer out its plan to conserve Montana's sage-grouse. They would re-convene at 8 am the next morning and get through a long agenda as quickly as possible; snow had moved into the area and everyone wanted to get home before dark.

Now, those who have come to The Mint are debating where to have dinner. The principal choices: a nearby bar offering "all you can eat" batter-fried fish and French fries for $7.50 versus The Mint dining room, with its woody elegance and a menu offering quality cut steaks and grilled salmon.

Those who have collected at The Mint include several employees of FWP, staffers from the BLM and USFS, the representative from the National Wildlife Federation, and two livestock producers. These are only a few of the interests involved in crafting the sage-grouse plan. The congenial banter around the table reflects many months of working together to overcome distrust and arrive at a consensus plan for conserving sage-grouse.

Sage-Grouse 101

The sage-grouse was first scientifically described by Lewis and Clark in 1805 along the Marias River; native tribes had incorporated the bird into their diet and culture long before. (The Gunnison sage-grouse, which lives in Colorado, has recently been recognized as a species separate from the greater or northern sage-grouse found in the remainder of the West.)

Sage grouse habitat consists of sagebrush and upland grasslands known as steppes. The birds are completely dependent for food and protective cover on sagebrush, of which there are a number of species. In spring and summer, they also eat forbs like the dandelion, and they may eat alfalfa on farmland in the summer. In winter, sagebrush is everything.

In spring, males gather at leks, or open dancing grounds, some of which have been used by generations over hundreds of years. They puff out their plumage and strut and "boom" for females. The girls arrive, make their choices of male, and quickly mate; then the sexes separate. Within a few weeks, the females lay their eggs under the sage cover and incubate them for nearly a month. The chicks need protein-rich insects and forbs, and a hen may lead her brood for miles to wet grounds or the edges of irrigated fields to look for ants, beetles, and nutritious plants.

Sage grouse tend to use small parts of very large landscapes, as much as a thousand square miles of range. They may migrate 100 miles in a single direction, flying over unsuitable habitat like mountains to get to the good spots. It's now known that sage-grouse summering near Dillon fly over the Centennial Mountains every year to winter in Idaho.

A Bird by Any Other Name

The sage-grouse has been called an "umbrella species," a term in ecology for a species that, when habitat is successfully managed for it, the ecological needs of a whole array of plant and animal species are also met.

  • It's been called a "poster child" for sagebrush habitat conservation because the appeal of the bird, the males strutting on the leks, may encourage people to care about the dry and rugged sagebrush landscape
  • The sage-grouse has been called the "spotted owl of Montana," a warning that listing of the bird under the Endangered Species Act will result in the same kind of major land management changes forced in the Northwest coastal forests by listing of the owl.
  • People who believe that conservation groups are using the sage-grouse decline as a lever to eliminate cattle grazing from public lands have called the sage-grouse a "Trojan horse."
  • Montana game chef Vince Pernicano, of the "Cooking With Vince" newspaper column, calls it the main ingredient in Tex-Mex Sage-Grouse Vegetable Soup.

What Happened to Montana's Sage-Grouse?

The sage-grouse was the leading game bird in the West until the early 1900s. Their populations fell in the '30s and '40s, rose through the '50s, peaked in the '60s, and started down again in the '80s. The peak years for hunter harvest in Montana were 1963-66 with an average 65,000 birds per year; the worst year was 1993 with a harvest of 6,000 birds. Although their population numbers appear cyclical, marked by localized ups and downs, overall numbers may be down by a third from historical levels.

The decline in bird numbers is generally related to the loss of a large portion of Montana's sagebrush habitat: perhaps 50 percent since the turn of the last century. Large areas remain, however, and where there are large tracts of sagebrush habitat, bird numbers rebounded in the late 1990s through 2001, with male attendance at some leks reaching long-term highs. It appears that sage-grouse can recover when habitat and environmental conditions are favorable. Last year, for example, researchers found that grouse numbers at a lek near Wisdom rebounded after sagebrush destroyed during the 1960s regenerated.

Specter of Listing Spurs Action

While Montana's sage-grouse have undergone some overall decline, sage-grouse populations elsewhere in the West are plunging. Advocates have filed petitions with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list certain populations as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Such a listing significantly increases federal regulation of both public and private lands. The working group would like to keep management of the birds in the hands of Montanans, especially given that Montana has substantial remaining habitat and comparatively healthy bird populations.

The impetus for the working group is a Memorandum of Understanding for conservation and management of sage-grouse signed by member states of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and federal natural resource management agencies. In a second MOU, federal agencies agreed to participate in state-led sage grouse conservation efforts. Overlapping these agreements are the agencies' legal mandates as well as the interests and requirements of Montana's Indian tribes.

The National Wildlife Federation and FWP held Montana's first-ever conference on sage-grouse in January 2001, bringing together an array of stakeholders. FWP assigned then-upland game bird manager John McCarthy to organize the sage grouse effort - and the Sage-Grouse Working Group was off and running.

Here's an observation from FWP's Pat Gunderson about a meeting in Glasgow:

You can view this more as 'changing times - diverging values.' New values are being formed primarily in the people of western Montana, while the eastern Montana values remain grounded on working and living on the land. When the sage-grouse committee had their meeting in Glasgow, locals had their eyes opened to the values of the National and Montana Wildlife Federations and Audubon. It was unbelievable to them that people could be so worried about a bird they saw as common. … The sage-grouse plan talks about the birds needing seven inches of grass cover for nesting, and the ranchers are saying, 'we don't have seven inches to start with!

Problems for the Habitat

Sage grows with an understory of grasses and wildflowers, which makes good forage for livestock. Over generations, a significant portion of Montana's sagebrush was burned or sprayed so the grasses could proliferate. Large areas of sagebrush habitat in Montana were converted to cropland (" sodbusting"), so now, most private lands suitable for farming are used for crops.

In some areas, the potential for increased subdivision threatens sage habitat. For example, north of Billings, the housing that reaches along the Yellowstone valley is built on subdivided sageland. Around Dillon, it's the "cows to condos" trend. Other habitat issues include invasions of non-native grasses and noxious weeds, periods of drought, and fire (although some types of sage quickly rejuvenate from fire).

What separates Montana from other states with sage-grouse populations is this: we have retained a much larger portion of our native rangelands, so our bird populations are in better shape than those in other Western states, especially in the Great Basin.

Problems for the Birds

Weather is the greatest natural threat to sage-grouse. Cold, heavy spring rains as well as hot, dry spells can be too much for chicks. Nest predation by ground squirrels is a notable problem; perhaps more troublesome is that predators not necessarily native to sagebrush - red foxes and raccoons, dogs and cats from new subdivisions, the common raven - are on the increase.

Hens and chicks are killed by traffic, and roads may deter hens from leading chicks to good brood rearing areas (although in an Oregon study, a hen led her chicks more than 25 miles including four-lane roads and median dividers). Off-road travel can tear up sagebrush habitat. Even overly enthusiastic bird watchers can sometimes disrupt grouse display activities.

Grouse are killed when they fly into fences or power lines and poles; these structures also become handy perches for golden eagles and other grouse predators. Mining and drilling for oil or gas appears to disrupt habitat and mating behavior. Although the birds may reclaim certain areas after workers have moved on, access roads and trails remain. In general, sage-grouse appear unable to relocate when development occurs; their productivity and survival declines, and they just vanish.

These individual problems can add up to cumulative impacts, too, as when increases in off-road travel help spread noxious weeds, which invade sagebrush habitat. Herbicides eliminate forbs that are important in the sage-grouse diet, and grouse will die if they eat bugs that have been exposed to insecticides.

Close-Up on Cattle Grazing

The impact of domestic livestock grazing on sage-grouse is subject of contention:

  • Critics point to overgrazed pastures and damaged riparian areas as reasons why cattle should be limited or removed entirely from certain public lands. Overgrazing can reduce the grass and forb component in and around sagebrush plants that is especially critical for sage-grouse nesting cover. Also, there are many cattle today in places where they seldom grazed previously.
  • Defenders of grazing say it's more intensively managed than ever before, with resulting improvements in range condition. One of the ranchers at Lewistown said this: "If you have poorly managed range, everything gets hurt. If it's well managed, I thinking grazing helps the sage-grouse. Grouse developed over centuries with buffalo and elk. Now cattle are taking their place, and it's a strong relationship."

Sage grouse experts note an interesting puzzle

In previous decades, when grazing wasn't so carefully managed, there were actually more grouse. The explanation may lie in the relationship among sage-grouse, habitat, and predators. When habitats are in optimum condition, sage-grouse can produce enough young to compensate for losses to predators. Sage grouse are less successful at raising young, however, when the grasses and forbs that form the sagebrush understory are degraded such that nests no longer have adequate cover against predators. When grazing was heavier, there was also more poisoning and shooting of predators, so perhaps there was less predation even in areas where the protective cover was poor. Now that there is less aggressive action against predators, their numbers have rebounded, so in areas with spotty protective cover, the grouse may be sitting ducks. Another possibility is that range managers are doing so well at managing for grass that forbs, which grouse also need, are not doing as well.

"Guys who have been living on the land for 60 years have a historical perspective that may be very important to future management decisions."

Montana Stockgrowers Association representative

"What if the biologist knows what to do but the local group is stacked with ag people who want to focus on predators? Does that take away my ability as a professional?"

FWP Biologist

"There's a fair bit of science that's bull and a fair bit of traditional knowledge that probably is, too."

Ben Deeble, National Wildlife Federation

Sounds Like a Plan

Over the months, a management plan took shape based on input at public and working group meetings and written material from interested parties. The working group used as their basic reference a report on sage-grouse survival, prepared at the request of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies grouse committee. ("Guidelines to manage sage-grouse populations and their habitats," by John W. Connelly, Michael A. Schroeder, Alan R. Sands, and Clait E. Braun, Wildlife Society Bulletin 2000; 28(4):967-985.) This paper recommends coordinated efforts by all landowners over the grouse's seasonal ranges, with local groups addressing local issues - a recommendation that is reflected in the management plan.

The draft plan explains the status of Montana's sage-grouse population and sagebrush habitat, describes the desired conditions for habitat, and identifies risks confronting habitat and sage-grouse populations. The plan explains the roles of the federal, state, and tribal agencies involved in sagebrush and sage-grouse management. And it provides a framework for establishing local groups of diverse stakeholders to adapt the plan to their respective geographical areas.

The core of the plan is a series of recommendations for research and action in these areas: fire, grazing, hunter harvest, energy development, noxious weeds, public education and implementation, power facilities, predation, recreational disturbance, roads and motorized vehicles, and vegetation.

For updated information on sage-grouse in Montana, including the state management plan, visit FWP's Sage-Grouse Management web page.

Who Cares About the Sage-Grouse Plan?

Fish, Wildlife, and Parks cares because it's responsible for monitoring and managing the sage-grouse population. The primary tools at FWP's disposal: setting hunting seasons and limits, which are adjusted annually with input from hunters; protecting habitat through conservation easements under the Habitat Montana program; and assisting private landowners with conservation efforts.

The Bureau of Land Management owns much of sage-grouse habitat throughout the West and has taken a leading role in working on conservation plans and sponsoring biological studies. BLM owns about one-half of the sage-grouse habitat in Montana. The main BLM representative at Lewistown expressed concern about how the working group's recommendations would ultimately affect BLM's management of its lands. "We need as an agency to understand how we participate, to build conservation plans into our land-use planning. We can't take the sage-grouse, the prairie dog, and any others separately. We need to look at the broader scale, look at all the plans, overlay them, understand the conflicts, and make decisions about priority."

The Montana Stockgrowers Association cares because the other half of Montana's sage-grouse habitat is in the hands of private producer/landowners, already aggrieved by government involvement in their operations. The main MSGA representative in Lewistown had this comment: "Landowners are being asked to make grazing decisions, to give up something economically for a greater population of sage-grouse, while Fish, Wildlife, and Parks allows a statewide hunting season … We need to collect information on what hunting does." During a discussion about how government agencies will coordinate their efforts, he said, "From the landowners' perspective, it's pretty damn scary when agencies can't explain how it will fit together and work in practical application."

Similarly, the Montana Farm Bureau cares because any regulations that emerge will affect farmers' management of their lands. The Farm Bureau representative said at Lewistown that the group was putting too much emphasis on agricultural practices and not enough on predator control and regulation of hunting.

Although sage-grouse occupy very little US Forest Service land in Montana, USFS cares because its operations affect the grouse and vice versa. For example, the agency has agreed not to burn sagebrush until FWP has commented on the impact to the grouse. And the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest had to review its management plans for several grazing allotments, after the National Wildlife Federation successfully argued that the agency hadn't sufficiently considered the needs of the grouse. USFS will incorporate the results of the sage-grouse plan into its management plan for individual National Forests. "Sage grouse have been on our radar screen for a long time," said USFS's Jina Mariani.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service cares because it's the agency responsible Endangered Species Act listings and for achieving recovery of the species.

The state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation cares because it's responsible for management of state lands. The federal Natural Resource Conservation Service advises the Farm Services Agency and individual landowners, and under the Conservation Reserve Program, can help landowners with habitat restoration.

The Montana Petroleum Association cares about possible restrictions on coalbed methane development in southeast Montana, which has significant sage-grouse habitat - complicated because many landowners in this region are wary of the potential environmental impact and general disruption from methane extraction. Montana Power Company, now Northwestern Energy, cares because its power lines and equipment criss-cross sagebrush habitat.

Falconers care because they come under the hunting regulations, which are affected by the condition of sage-grouse populations. The representative of the Montana Falconers commented in Lewistown that sage-grouse were compatible with buffalo and are doing fine with cattle; his concern is "sodbusting" and its impact on the grouse.

National Wildlife Federation considers sage-grouse an umbrella species for sage-steppe conservation, and they favor the working-group approach over ESA listing. While many wildlife groups oppose hunting, NWF represents hunters and has involved hunters in grouse monitoring projects. NWF notes that because bird hunting in general is an economic boon to Montana - food and accommodations, hunting supplies, outfitting, and more - protecting the sage-grouse has important economic implications.

Montana Wildlife Federation and Audubon care, as do Pheasants Forever, a number of sportsmen's groups, and many others. Tribal representatives have attended various meetings because the sage-grouse is part of native culture as well as an attraction for reservation visitors.

Perspectives on hunting and ranching

A rancher at the Lewistown meeting said: "Hunting and grazing are both multiple use. But grazing, that's their livelihood. It determines what kind of shoes the kids wear, whether they go to college. Hunting is recreation. I don't think anyone would argue that a ten-percent take is inconsequential, but grazing is their livelihood. There's an emotional element there that needs to be addressed."

When told the sage-grouse case would be analyzed by economists, NWF's Ben Deeble said: "Tell them to look at the economics of the sage-grouse harvest. … People who used to hunt those birds can't find them. Around White Sulphur Springs or Glendive, when times were tough, the ranch was living on sage-grouse when they weren't eating beef. Some of the most touching encounters I've had haven't been with the professionals. It's been the landowners who remember how it used to be, who get tears in their eyes when they talk about the sage-grouse that used to be in their midst ."

Meanwhile, Back at The Mint

… on that chilly day in March, 2002, most people from the workshop group have decided to stay at The Mint for dinner versus going to the "all you can eat" fish and chips special.

"We did fish and chips after the last meeting here in Lewistown," recalls one of the FWP staffers. "I scraped all the batter off to get to the walleye, and I ended up with a plateful of big chunks of fried batter." One of the ranchers nods with a puzzled look: "Yeah, I remember that. The batter's the best part!"

Sources

  • Interviews: John McCarthy, FWP; Pat Gunderson, FWP; Jina Mariani, US Forest Service; Ben Deeble, National Wildlife Federation.
  • "Sage-Grouse Strut Their Stuff," by Scott Weidensaul, Smithsonian Magazine, June 2001
  • "Last dance for the sage-grouse?" by Hal Clifford, High Country News, 2/4/02
  • "Sage grouse population shows improvement," by Perry Backus, Missoulian, 6/17/01
  • "Big bombers of the prairie fight fragmentation of habitat," by Mark Henckel, Billings Gazette, 10/26/0
  • Guidelines to manage sage-grouse populations and their habitats," by John W. Connelly, Michael A. Schroeder, Alan R. Sands, and Clait E. Braun, Wildlife Society Bulletin 2000; 28(4):967-985
  • "Influences of livestock grazing on sage-grouse habitat," by Jeffrey L. Beck and Dean L. Mitchell, Wildlife Society Bulletin 2000, 28(4):993-1002

Ideas

  • When this vignette was presented at the April 2003 workshop of the "Changing Times - Changing Values" project (precursor to the Montana Challenge), the audience briefly discussed possibilities for economic development in Montana's de-populating eastern plains.
  • One audience member suggested opening a "Sagebrush Museum," which would celebrate the human history and wildlife values of this part of the state.
  • Another mentioned the Texas Prairie Rivers Initiative as a possible model. This is an initiative to develop nature-based tourism in a region of Texas primarily devoted to cattle, along with oil and gas production.

This vignette was completed in October 2003.