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Miles City Meeting V

Meeting Summary
Miles City Sage Grouse Local Working Group
August 30, 2004

Welcome/Introductions

Anne Cossitt, Local Working Group Facilitator, welcomed the group, reviewed the agenda, and the overall goals of the conservation plan and local working group effort.

NRCS Conservation Incentive Programs

Larry Murphy, NRCS in Miles City, gave a brief overview of the following NRCS programs:

  • Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP)
  • Grassland Reserve Program (GRP)
  • Wetland Reserve Program (WRP)
  • Conservation Security Program (CSP)
  • Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP)

Each of these programs has elements that could be used by landowners to improve livestock and farming operations and also meet objectives for sage grouse conservation. 

The Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program provides cost share for various projects that can benefit wildlife, including such things as fencing and water development.  Projects are funded with contracts that can be from 5-10 years, and in some cases even longer.  NRCS staff work with applicants to develop wildlife habitat development plans.

The Grassland Reserve Program, designed to restore and protect grasslands while retaining grazing and haying operations, was initiated last year.  It works based on easements, which can either be permanent or for 30 year terms. 

The Wetland Reserve Program is geared to restore and protect wetlands.  Projects can be easements (either permanent or 30 year-easements), or restoration cost-share programs, which can provide up to 75% of the cost of re-establishing a degraded or lost wetland.

The Conservation Securities Program just came out this year.  Landowners conduct a self-assessment to see if they are eligible.  The program is set up for funding by watersheds and are available only every eight years (in other words once a watershed is eligible, it won't be eligible again for another eight years).  Project funding is available in three tiers-one up to $20,000 per year per landowner, another up to $35,000 per year, and the third up to $45,000 per year.

The Environmental Quality Incentive Program is to encourage producers to carry out management priorities that they might not otherwise use without the incentive.  Funding is available in contracts up to 10 years.

Participants asked a variety of questions including, "How can fences be part of a program to protect wildlife? -fences can definitely be worked by coyotes" Also, "Couldn't there be some conflicts with CSP and production of forbs which are important for sage grouse during brood-rearing season?" 

Larry Murphy indicated that there needs to be some sort of model program developed for adapting to sage grouse habitat needs.

For more information visit http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/.  Anyone interested in a program can contact their local NRCS office.  Staff can help with completing project applications.

Livestock Grazing

Cossitt introduced the Livestock Grazing discussion by briefly reviewing the goal statements in the plan:

  • Manage grazing to maintain the soil conditions and ecological processes necessary for a properly functioning sagebrush community that addresses the long term needs of sage grouse and other sagebrush associated species.
  • Assess the impacts of fencing for livestock on sage grouse and sage grouse habitats.
  • Minimize impacts of using pesticides and herbicides to control insects and herbaceous plants that provide a food source for grouse.

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 also gave a very brief overview of highlights from the presentation made at the June meeting in Dillon by Deseret Land and Livestock, a livestock operation consisting of about 200,000 acres in northeastern Utah.  Since the 1980s, there has been an intensive effort on this ranch to increase livestock profitability and to improve wildlife management (in part also to have profits from hunting).  Grazing management is the primary factor in improving livestock production, and it includes a growing season grazing regime of short, intensive use of various pastures.  At any one time during this season 90% of the cattle are on 10% or less of the total ranch area.  Copies of the Deseret study of sage grouse on their property were available at the meeting for participants to review.

Local example of grazing management system

Don Youngbauer, who ranches near Forsyth, gave a short presentation of the system he has been experimenting with over the past three years on his place.  His ranch, approximately 16,000 acres, is in the process of being fenced into half section areas.  In the spring during new growth, he puts cattle on a quarter section (fenced with portable electric fence as necessary), allowing for about 25 animals per acre per day.  In a good year, with good growth, the pasture lasts for about three days.  If grass is insufficient by about the third day he may need to put out some hay bales or cake.  He also mentioned that fiberglass fence posts have worked well on the portable electric fence, which is easy enough for one person to install one mile in a day.

Moving the cattle from pasture to pasture is not a problem, by the time he opens the gate to new pasture, the cattle move themselves within about two hours.   After about three days, the cattle begin to move back to the first pasture.  A half section can typically provide pasture under this system for about six days to a week.

During the late growth period, a section can last up to 10 to 12 days.

During the winter, January through March, his cattle are moved off-property to another pasture.

At least four sections per year are not grazed at all. 

Youngbauer indicated that at first the program resulted in a loss.

Youngbauer is managing to improve soil conditions on his property.  He is looking to have every piece of grass eaten or stomped into the soil.  The goal is to build the organic matter in the soil and to reduce erosion.  He has tried to model his program after research that indicates that historically the area was used by buffalo, with similar, although wider spread, intensive grazing.

Questions and comments included:

"How could others who cannot afford a loss upfront start a program like this?" 

"How do you get water to the cattle in these various pastures?"

"If and how buffalo grazed historically is a matter of discussion.  There is a publication that discusses this- Where the Buffalo RoamÂ…or Did They?"

Youngbauer indicated that there is a pipeline that provides water to the various pastures.  Thirty-three reservoirs on the property didn't work as well.

Conservation Actions

Cossitt passed out a handout with the goals, issues, and conservation actions for livestock grazing with columns for various agencies and entities.  Columns for BLM (completed by Kent Undlin, Miles City), FWP (completed by John Ensign, Miles City), and DNRC (as completed by Randy Dirkson, DNRC Glasow) were completed by the time of this meeting.  Several others are still working on theirs.

Kent Undlin gave a brief presentation of what the BLM is doing regarding each of the conservation actions.  His comments are recorded on the spread sheet that accompanies this meeting summary (under the column "BLM").   Ron Devlin asked the question is standards and guides would change, with more emphasis placed on sage grouse.  Kent indicated that it was possible.  Ron also asked about a specific proposed burn on a crested wheat grass pasture.  BLM representatives indicated that the burn was proposed to improve habitat conditions on what had become a crested wheat monoculture.  It may take a combination of treatments to change the monoculture.

John Ensign indicated that the state plan has now been adopted by the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission and work has begun in earnest on the Sagebrush Initiative.  Letters were sent to approximately 100 landowners with property identified as high priority for sage grouse habitat conservation informing them of the benefits of the Sagebrush Initiative program.  This program, reviewed by John at the last meeting (see meeting summary for the June Miles City meeting), provides cash payments for landowners who agree not to destroy sage brush (by burning, spraying, or plowing) for a period of 30 years.  Grazing and other land uses would still be allowed under the program. 

With insufficient time to review all conservation actions in detail, Cossitt asked people who had not previously had a chance to talk to start first in identifying what they saw as major issues or concerns.  These included the following:

  • How many sage grouse are enough sage grouse?
  • The effort should focus on the variety and combination of seasonal habitats needed to support sage grouse.  Consider more about role of hay fields in summer habitat.
  • There are lots of pieces to the puzzle of the survival picture for sage grouse-how do the pieces interact?  Which ones are most important?
  • What is the current number of sage grouse?  There are lots of leks that haven't been counted?  (Note:  John Ensign responded to this last question indicating that the number of known birds has doubled in the past few years due to more intensive/extensive counting.  Also the counts have now included winter counts, which seem to give a better overall count than just counting birds on the leks.  Still, the total number of birds has not been accurately determined yet.)

Wrap-up and Upcoming Meetings

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 (cossitt@usadig.com or (406) 633-2213).  One idea that came up at the Miles City meeting was a landowner who had been told that sagebrush on his property needed to be thinned.    Projects will be discussed at the next meeting.

Participants

Doug Campbell
Dawn Doran
Tom Courtney
Chad Cyrus
Ron Devlin
John Ensign
Rod Heitschmidt
Ward Jackson
Robert Kilian
George Luther
Mike Mungas
Larry Murphy
Tom Ostendorf
David Overcast
Paul Ringling
Brad Sauer
Dean Seifert
Kent Undlin
Bruce Waage
Ken Williams
Todd Yeager
Don Youngbauer