Matt Holloran is an independent researcher who has been studying sage-grouse in Wyoming since 1996. He conducted his PhD research on how grouse responded to development of the Pinedale Anticline gas field. His takeaway: “Grouse and gas don’t mix.”
Holloran feels the core plan is a good one for stabilizing a declining population, but it needs to do more.
“You can nitpick specifics, but taken as a whole it’s pretty solid in my opinion…an approach to try to stop the bleeding,” he says. “But, that’s only one step in what success will look like.”
Holloran says that the core strategy must now evolve to address strategies to grow the sage-grouse population, and that means habitat restoration, because much of what’s left of the sagebrush steppe ecosystem is not healthy.
“There’s deep-seated degradation here,” he says. “We’re dealing with the consequences of overgrazing from 125 years ago. A chunk of ground that was overgrazed in 1895, you can’t just make it nondegraded today.”
The unfortunate legacy of the 19th-century open range with tens of millions of hungry sheep and cattle roaming the West lives on, because the sagebrush steppe is a cold desert ecosystem and vegetative regrowth is slow. Today the BLM manages livestock grazing on federal lands through permits and leases, but that won’t undo the degradation, because many native plant species have been effectively eliminated in many areas. And those missing plants can be important for sage-grouse. Cool season bunch grasses provide cover for nesting hens, and a diversity of forbs provides the insect base that newly hatched chicks need to bulk up on protein.
Holloran likens the Herculean task of rebuilding the sagebrush steppe to restoring ecosystem complexity after a clearcut.
“Take an old-growth forest, cut it down, then eliminate the entire seedbank. You’ll never get it back with no seeds to start it,” he says.
The Sage Grouse Initiative, funded by the Farm Bill through the Department of Agriculture, provides a model for rebuilding sagebrush plant communities. The initiative has been a funnel for the hundreds of millions of federal dollars spent to restore and conserve private lands across the sage-grouse’s range. It’s a good deal for ranchers, because restored sagebrush with healthy grasses makes for more nutritious forage for livestock. In five years, the effort has restored more than 4 million acres of high-quality habitat, an area twice the size of Yellowstone National Park. But that’s only about 2 percent of the sagebrush steppe.
The bulk of restoration work falls on the BLM, which manages more than half (61 million acres) of the habitat in the Greater Sage-Grouse’s range. And the BLM doesn’t appear to have the bandwidth for a massive sagebrush ecosystem reconstruction effort right now, given that many biologists complain the agency doesn’t do enough monitoring of the grazing that’s occurring on federal lands today.
Brian Rutledge of Audubon Rockies agrees that restoration is vital to sage-grouse conservation. “The long-term answer is to restore the carrying capacity of our sagebrush steppe,” he says. And, he has an idea for generating the funds to get it done.
In a presentation to the Western Governor’s Association, Rutledge proposed restructuring the tax on oil and gas drilling on federal lands. Currently, half of the tax goes to the state and half to the federal government, both of which pocket the money in general funds. Rutledge says a portion of that money should be earmarked for sagebrush restoration. Furthermore, he believes the tax should be expanded to any private use of public lands—mining, grazing, wind turbines, gravel pits.
“When you have companies pulling billions out in gas value, a significant percentage of that should be going back into the land,” he says.
“When I sell my cattle in the fall, some of my money goes to build better fences, plant grass where it got thin,” says Rutledge, who ranches cattle on the side at his home in Colorado. “Part of my profit goes back into my land. I sure don’t get to walk away with all of it.”
Private companies, he says, have been “gleaning profits from public lands and not reinvesting in it. As Americans, we should demand that; it’s our land.”