Science Reveals Sage Advice: Cut (the Right) Trees to Save the Bird and the Herd

by Brianna Randall, Sage Grouse Initiative communications director

On January 31, the Sage Grouse Initiative website will live-stream a full-day symposium sharing the latest scientific research on effects of woody encroachment on lesser prairie-chickens and greater sage-grouse.  See the presentation schedule and find out how to join the free live-streaming.

What do America’s prairies and sagebrush have in common? Ranchers, for one. Grouse, for another.

And, third, a woody plant invasion that’s threatening to take over the healthy rangelands that support  birds and people alike.

Woody species like juniper and pinyon pine trees in sagebrush country, and red cedar and mesquite in the southern Great Plains, are encroaching onto grasslands to the detriment of working ranchlands and wildlife. In the West’s Great Basin alone, conifers have expanded their range by 600 percent in the past 150 years, drying up precious streams and threatening 350 species.

The January 2017 issue of Rangeland Ecology & Management is dedicated to research on woodland expansion in the West’s sagebrush and grassland ecosystems. All articles are freely available for viewing.

This month, the Society for Range Management’s (SRM) scientific journal, Rangeland Ecology & Management, released a special issue focused entirely on this landscape-level threat. Fifteen new research papers describe the impacts of the woody invasion of western rangelands, using grouse as a focal species to evaluate habitat restoration.

This new research contributes to a growing body of science demonstrating the impacts of woodland expansion on wildlife in the West. Using science to target conservation practices maximizes the return on investment, and helps managers and landowners fine-tune practices that benefit the bird and the herd.

For the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), removing encroaching woody plants has long been a conservation priority through its Sage Grouse Initiative and Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative.

The greater sage-grouse in sagebrush country and the lesser prairie-chicken in the southern Great Plains both serve as barometers for the health of their respective regions, since these birds depend on large swaths of intact, healthy habitat to survive. NRCS uses science to target the best places and ways to work with ranchers to improve both working lands and habitat for these at-risk birds.

Since 2010, thousands of ranchers have made wildlife-friendly improvements to more than 6 million acres in the West—including removing woody plants from a total of 600,000 acres—benefiting sage grouse and prairie chicken while improving livestock forage on privately owned rangeland.

For example, one study in the new issue of SRM’s research journal shows that lesser prairie-chickens strongly prefer nest sites with less than 1 percent mesquite canopy cover and rarely use habitat where cover exceeds 15 percent. Another study shows that 86 percent  of sage grouse hens avoided conifer-invaded habitat, but that—after conifer removal—29 percent of tracked hens chose to nest in restored habitat.

Another research paper featured in this special journal issue shows that sagebrush-dominated landscapes hold snow longer than conifer-dominated lands, improving water availability during dry summer months – an invaluable ecosystem service in the arid West.

To ensure this new cutting-edge research reaches the broadest possible audience and informs rangeland practices far and wide, SRM, NRCS, and the Bureau of Land Management are partnering to live-stream presentations from a January 31 symposium held at the Society for Range Management’s annual conference in St. George, Utah.

The full-day symposium will feature 20 presentations on the latest findings about how woodland invasion is affecting grouse, wildlife, and people living in sagebrush and prairie ecosystems. All presentations will be free to watch on the Sage Grouse Initiative’s website.

To see the schedule of talks and find links to all research papers, visit the Sage Grouse Initiative website.