Anne Cossitt, Local Working Group Facilitator, welcomed the group and reviewed the agenda. Participants introduced themselves just before the break.
Anne Cossitt reviewed actions since the last meeting, which included a letter to the federal Fish and Wildlife Service regarding their habitat-wide sage grouse status review, and a letter to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks regarding the state plan Environmental Assessment. Both of these letters are available on the sage grouse Web page.
After the last meeting in Glasgow, Maxine Korman asked Anne to distribute an article from "Field and Farm" regarding using spike to control sagebrush. The article indicated that sagebrush proliferated and grass production under the sagebrush declined as a result of heavy grazing between 1880 and 1934.
Cossitt reported that at the last meeting in Dillon, Rick Danvir gave a presentation on the work to increase livestock numbers and wildlife habitat on the 200,000 acre Deseret Land and Livestock ranch in northeastern Utah. Danvir, staff biologist for Deseret Land and Livestock, has been monitoring habitat for nearly 20 years on the property. Much of his talk dealt with sagebrush manipulation. The ranch has used Spike, cultivation, and burns, but has attempted to open up areas in mosaic patterns rather than large contiguous areas. He also talked about the livestock management program over the past 20 years, which has focused on short periods of intensive grazing. At any one time, 90% of the cattle are on 10% percent of the ranch area. He cautioned that sagebrush manipulation must be done in concert with livestock management—y ou can't expect to manipulate the sagebrush and then use the area for grazing the way it had been done in the past. When asked what has made the biggest difference in increasing cattle numbers on the property, livestock grazing management or sagebrush manipulation, Danvir replied clearly that the livestock management was the biggest contributing effect.
Jeff Mosley, Professor of Range Science and Extension Range Management Specialist at Montana State University-Bozeman, gave a presentation on livestock grazing and sage grouse habitat. (Note: Cossitt has requested a copy of his power point presentation to put on the sage grouse website.)
Mosley began by presenting information on guidelines for sage brush canopy cover (breeding habitat: 15-25%, brood-rearing habitat: 10-25%, and winter habitat: 10-30%). He noted that these are ranges and the high end of each range is not necessarily the goal, nor is it necessarily even achievable in some areas. For example, Wyoming big sagebrush, which is one of the major types of sagebrush in northeastern Montana, has a canopy cover at 15-16% at plant climax. Silver sagebrush is another major sagebrush type in this part of Montana, but he did not have canopy cover statistics available for that species.
Participants noted that areas of dense canopy cover are important for sage grouse winter habitat, especially crucial during hard winters. It was also pointed out that understory vegetation may be hindered by poor soils as much or more than from dense canopy cover.
Mosley pointed out that no research information exists about the effects of livestock grazing on sage grouse populations. Only a few research studies have addressed the effects of livestock grazing on habitat use by sage grouse.
Livestock grazing can have negative, neutral, or positive effects depending upon how the grazing is managed. Livestock grazing likely has a negligible effect whenever grazing sustains native plant communities and ecosystem processes. Light to moderate stocking rates and low stock densities can help create/maintain landscape-scale mosaics of plant successional stages and vegetation that favor sage grouse. Livestock distribution must be controlled to limit grazing impacts to leks, brooding areas, and wet meadows. Grazing regimes that achieve uniform livestock distribution at >60% utilization are generally less compatible with sage grouse. Fences and water developments can be designed and constructed in ways compatible with sage grouse.
Timing of Grazing
Intensity of Grazing
Fences and Water Development
Questions and comments raised after Mosley's presentation included:
Cossitt introduced the Livestock Grazing discussion by briefly reviewing the goal statements in the plan.
Cossitt noted that the first goal has a footnote that refers to the WAFWA guidelines in Appendix A of the plan for descriptions of desired conditions for habitat. She noted that the guidelines at the very end of the article in Appendix A indicate specific sagebrush canopy cover and grass height. There is a clear acknowledgement in the article that these may need to be examined for specific locations and local biologists and range ecologists should be involved in developing local standards as necessary.
Cossitt distributed a "Livestock Grazing Matrix" which included all of the livestock grazing conservation actions from the state plan along with columns for various entities. Participants then described what their agency or organization was doing generally related to livestock grazing in sage grouse habitat.
John Fahlgren indicated that approximately 85% of BLM is in a rotational system with management plan (1/2 rest rotation/1/2 deferred). The other 15% is primarily smaller unit. The BLM monitors allotments for sage grouse and is working to obtain baseline data to use for sage grouse management. Maxine Korman asked how would a lessee know if their allotment was being reviewed and possibly considered for some grazing management changes. John Carlson responded by saying that they try to stay in contact with the grazing districts.
Pat Gunderson indicated that the Montana FWP has begun the Sagebrush Initiative Program as a voluntary incentive program for retaining sage brush, but it does not have any livestock grazing restrictions. FWP also offers other incentive programs to improve wildlife habitat, including cost-share on rest-rotation grazing systems. Pat noted that he and other FWP biologists worked together to note in the matrix what FWP for each conservation action.
Larry Murphy, with NRCS out of Miles City, indicated that NRCS works with private landowners on a voluntary basis through the various incentive programs, including cost-share programs.
Cossitt reported the results of a conversation with Bill Berg at the CMR regarding grazing. He indicated that unlike most other areas of federally managed public lands, the CMR is managed specifically for wildlife and grazing is used as one tool in managing wildlife habitat. Grazing allotments on the CMR are reviewed for their effectiveness in that light.
Diane Dirkson indicated that grazing districts encourage habitat management, act as "leaders" and negotiate as needed on allotment issues. Grazing districts also get information out—good place to get information from BLM on allotment monitoring, etc.
Linda Poole, from the Matador Ranch, also reviewed some of their incentive programs. For example, they offer reduced lease rates on the Matador Ranch to producers who are working on sage grouse habitat conservation (and improvements) on their own property. It was suggested that we add a column to the matrix that include these kinds of things.
Another program that was mentioned was the Montana Undaunted Stewardship Program, which is providing information and assistance for habitat improvement.
Other comments raised by the group included:
San Stiver, Wildlife Coordinator for the multi-state Sage Grouse Conservation Planning Framework Team that prepared the 600 page assessment submitted to FWS, has agreed to come present at the October meeting on harvest management (hunting) and predation.
Cossitt summarized comments, indicating that basic questions keep re-surfacing at each of the local working groups, including questions about what will be most effective in addressing sage grouse habitat and populations. She suggested that the group consider a project and that as a group they evaluate existing conditions and monitor and evaluate change. She asked participants to think about things they might want to try on their property. Ideas can be submitted to her via email or phone (firstname.lastname@example.org or (406) 633-2213). This will be discussed at the next meeting.
Regarding other upcoming meetings, it was pointed out that oil and gas is an issue in Phillips County and needs to be considered by the local working group.