Don’t Let Idaho Wolf Management Become a Distraction from Idaho’s Sage Grouse Management

With all of the horrible things happening in Idaho’s wolf management, it is hard to focus on other, perhaps more, important issues facing Idaho wildlife.  With a deadline of 2015 bearing down for the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to make a decision about whether the greater sage grouse should receive protection under the Endangered Species Act, the BLM and US Forest Service are engaging in a process to update the land use plans that define objectives and future management for sage grouse on the respective BLM districts and National Forests.  What is happening now is a giant shell game that will result in further declines in sage grouse and their habitat.

One of the biggest distractions taking place within these processes is the idea that sage grouse don’t have the same habitat requirements throughout their 11-state range.  This argument lends itself nicely to a quiet whittling away of habitat through habitat mapping exercises.  It has long been known that sage grouse are a “landscape” bird that requires large areas of intact sagebrush habitat with connectivity to other blocks of habitat, a healthy grass and forb understory for nesting cover, healthy riparian and meadow areas for brood rearing, and sufficient winter habitat.  They require a variety of habitats to fulfill their seasonal needs as well.  These habitats are vulnerable to many types of threats but, as George Wuerthner so eloquently reminded us, these threats have proximate and ultimate causes.  The proximate threats apply differently across the range of sage grouse but the ultimate cause of many of these threats is the same across most of their range.

Outside of the areas that are being rapidly developed in the natural gas boom occurring in the West, of which little is occurring in Idaho, habitat conversion from land cultivation, fire, and invasive species are considered the primary threats to sage grouse habitat by the USFWS. Even though these threats are considered primary threats by the USFWS, they are actually primarily a result, or proximate result, of the most widespread activity across the vast majority of greater sage grouse range…… livestock production is the ultimate cause of these threats.

A great amount of evidence is building that shows that livestock grazing impacts three of the most important components of the sagebrush steppe ecosystem which maintain their resilience to disturbance.  The biggest, and most widespread impact to these ecosystems is the reduction of grass and forb nesting and brood rearing cover which makes sage grouse nests and chicks much more vulnerable to predation by avian predators such as ravens.  Livestock grazing also adversely impacts the important soil crusts that protect a landscape from invasive annual grasses that carry large, fast moving wildfires and increase their frequency.  These livestock impacts result in the widespread removal of sagebrush, the most important component of sage grouse habitat.

To address these impacts Dr. Clait Braun developed “A Blueprint for Sage-grouse Conservation and Recovery” which outlines certain guidelines for livestock grazing and other impacts.  Specifically, to ensure that sage grouse have adequate breeding, nesting, brood rearing, and winter habitat, Dr. Braun suggests that grazing should be greatly limited in sage grouse habitat during the period from March 1st to June 20 and August 1st to November 15 each year.  These time periods are crucial for sage grouse because it is when they are most vulnerable to disturbance and predation.  It is also when the grasses and forbs that helps sage grouse avoid predation and provide crucial nutrition is most impacted by grazing.  He outlines many other guidelines for impacts as well, but these are some  of the most important relating to livestock grazing.

The habitat requirements are pretty much universal for sage grouse populations but does the BLM and US Forest Service address the impacts of grazing in the various plan revisions taking place across the West?  The short answer is no.  And worse is the fact that all of these plans provided less and less protection for sage grouse habitat by reducing the areas that receive the most protection.  Essentially, the mapping distinguishing the importance of sage grouse habitat has changed over the years and keeps fragmenting the habitat more and more.  It has been a game by the various agencies to concoct new designations for describing the importance of habitat and local groups even chip away at these designations by further eliminating areas from protection based on powerful interests who want some sort of development or “treatment” etc.  There is no consistency from plan to plan as to how habitats are described.  This is exactly the wrong approach for saving sage grouse.

As I mentioned before, sage grouse need large blocks of habitat with connectivity between them.  Instead of giving isolated populations higher levels of protection, most of the newer habitat mapping efforts either completely write off these populations or reduce the amount of land that receives habitat protections.  This increases the likelihood that they will become more isolated and be extirpated from these areas.

Using Idaho mapping as an example, let’s look at how this is occurring.

The first real plan developed for sage grouse in Idaho was published in 2006.  Using 2004 mapping, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game designated sage grouse habitat based on the classifications of “Key” and “Potential Restoration” areas.  At the time this was some of the better mapping for sage grouse around the west because it was more habitat based and took into account areas with sagebrush and areas that had recently had sagebrush but it still had some problems.

Over the next few years the mapping has undergone gradual change as things became more clear, but it still had some problems and the idea that there was restoration potential for perennial grasslands and annual grasslands remained.  But as time has gone by, especially after it became more clear that sage grouse might gain protection under the Endangered Species Act, the mapping by several agencies has become less and less protective and written off the West Central and East Idaho Uplands entirely. Below is the sequence of mapping from 2004 to 2013 showing every conceivable degradation.

Idaho conservation plan 2006
Idaho Department of Fish and Game 2004 sage grouse habitat mapping.
Idaho Department of Fish and Game 2012 Habitat Mapping
Idaho Department of Fish and Game 2012 Habitat Mapping
BLM Preliminary Priority and General Habitat Mapping
BLM Preliminary Priority and General Habitat Mapping
2013 Core
2013 DEIS Alternative E: Idaho Core, Important, and General Habitat Zones, Montana Preliminary Priority and General Management Areas, and Utah SGMA
2013 DEIS Medial SG Habitat
2013 DEIS Alternative F: Preliminary Priority, General, and Restoration Management Areas
USFWS Conservation Objective Team (COT) Report Mapping 2013
USFWS Conservation Objective Team (COT) Report Mapping 2013


  1. SEAK Mossback Avatar
    SEAK Mossback

    When I lived in NW Wyoming, I always wanted to travel to sage grouse habitat to hunt them. Sounds like its getting to the point where I couldn’t, even if I made the trip. It’s amazing that the largest of the North American grouse and one of the greatest game birds is circling the drain, and the local hunting community apparently can’t find much to rally around but opposition to wolves, against which they are closely allied with those doing in the sage grouse. Another example of simple human psychology “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”?

  2. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan


    I think you are right. Organized hunting groups seem to have developed a monomania about wolves, causing closed eyes to other issues. Of course, individual hunters hopefully are different.

    One good thing to say about the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, they did not acquiesce in Montana where the Department of Livestock is itching to start killing elk because of hyped up threat they might give cattle brucellosis. They did send in comments opposing this misconceived effort.

  3. Ken Cole Avatar

    It shouldn’t surprise me but it does disappoint me that an article about sage grouse gets only one tenth the readers as a one paragraph article linking to a wolf story. Especially when the impacts of this issue are far, far more profound than the wolf issue.

    Sage grouse are clearly not sexy like wolves and it is clear that wolves are more of social issue than anything else.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      “It shouldn’t surprise me but it does disappoint me that an article about sage grouse gets only one tenth the readers as a one paragraph article linking to a wolf story”


      Perhaps it has to do with the fact that articles on sage grouse and their plight, are brought to the attention of WN readers maybe every 4-5 months, compared to weekly articles about wolves.

      I don’t understand the program of paying ranchers to leave swaths of private land under sagebrush only to run cattle on it during critical breeding and hatching times for grouse and then give them cheap grazing fees to do the same on public lands.

      Some thoughts on sage grouse from BCH:

      Regulars here know what WWP is doing to protect sage grouse habitat but what other other organizations could use our support and encouragement?

    2. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan


      You are right. Sage grouse are not as sexy. That is an enormous thing to overcome. People need to realize that the issue is really about the conservation of the vast sagebrush steppe.

      To some that isn’t sexy either, but it certainly is to me, probably more than the forests.

      The conservation of sage grouse, ecologically speaking of all the side effects, is more important than the wolf in the lower 48. We should be gratified, however, that the sage grouse are not a social conflict issue like wolves, although ranchers are trying to ramp it up, seeking another handout from the hard pressed general public.

      1. SEAK Mossback Avatar
        SEAK Mossback

        Ralph —
        There appears to be at least one recent (yesterday) contribution to a prominent national publication looking to elevate the sage grouse as a social conflict issue.

    3. Logan Avatar

      Sage grouse aren’t cute, and they don’t resemble any of the cuddly pets that people keep in their homes.

      Sad because I think sage grouse are one of the coolest species that we have in Idaho. I have read that other upland birds like praire chinkens in the plains states are facing similar declines.

      1. Ida Lupines Avatar
        Ida Lupines

        Logan, I think they are cute. This is a stale argument, the so-called ‘cute’ factor being what determines which species humans want to save. It’s one of the ‘let’s throw it out there and see if it sticks’ tactic that is annoying. What we actually use right now is the ‘utilitarian’ factor; if useful to humans, even if it is an invasive, keep it. If not, get rid of it.

  4. Yvette Avatar

    I don’t know enough about sage grouse to have to contribute to the discussion. From my initial reading of this article it appears that livestock are once again a big part of the problem.

    I wish we could revamp the laws and/or policy on livestock grazing on public land, so that there would be less impact to habitat. If we could accomplish that it would resolved many problems with our wildlife species.

    A couple of weeks ago we had a guest lecture in one of my classes that spoke about the lesser prairie chicken, which is also being considered for listing. This lecturer was actually representing the agriculture and oil and gas industry, and she wasn’t too good of a speaker. (she was filling in for someone so I have to give her credit for that) I noticed there was little interest from the other students in the class. I was about the only one to ask any questions.

    It must be a similar situation with the sage grouse.

  5. Kyle Gardner Avatar
    Kyle Gardner

    Excellent coverage and a great highlight that the overriding issue here is conservation of sagebrush habitat, or as author Steven Trimble called it, “the sagebrush ocean.” The history of sagebrush “management” indicates how the predominant mindset sees the habitat and all the life associated with it.

    Andrew Gulliford wrote a very nice op-ed for High Country News a few weeks back that hit home for sage grouse.

    A big part of the problem here in Colorado is the rapid (rabid?) expansion of oil and gas extraction operations on the Western Slope. Passing over or through the pads and roads and facilities, it’s hard to imagine any critter prospering. The fragmentation of the habitat is astounding.

    May I echo Gulliford’s suggestion that we all speak for the sage grouse?

  6. Immer Treue Avatar
    Immer Treue

    Don’t know much about sage grouse. Do they drum like ruffed grouse? On the subject of ruffed grouse, I’m puzzled at their persistence. They will just sit in trees, where a well aimed rock or slingshot will dispatch them. They will however, scare the Sh!? Out of you while snowshoeing and they explode out of the snow in front of you.

  7. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    How can anyone say these birds aren’t sexy? The are gorgeous IMO.

    Sage Grouse Rebellion

  8. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    It’s not that people don’t care about other endangered animals, it’s that killing and scapegoating wolves and other predators is so incomprehensively brutal. And making money from it is just as despicable. It’s no better than an illegal animal fight for bets. It’s beneath humanity and I thought we had moved beyond this. I’m always shocked at what human beings are capable of. Having killing contests for ‘fun’ and indoctrinating children is really beyond my comprehension. If an animal needs to be killed to be ‘managed’, it is a serious thing and should be conducted in a serious matter, not associated with celebrations and entertainment.

    Sage grouse habitat loss is quietly deadly, because our population continues to grow, and we continue to need land for energy development, both the so-called green and otherwise. People say they value wildlife, but in the end nobody really does anything to cut back on their use or resources. We need to use less. I think energy development is more of a concern than ranching. Can the sage grouse withstand the human onslaught of energy development? It is worrisome, especially as was the opinion in the Wall St. Journal article I posted, that protecting sage grouse habitat would be considered ‘harmful’ to humans. So it doesn’t look good as to whose needs will come first, does it.

    1. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      I should have written:

      It’s not that people don’t care about other endangered animals, it’s that killing and scapegoating wolves and other predators is so incomprehensively brutal, not that one is ‘cuter’ or ‘sexier’ than the other, for God’s sake! We humans have an amazing ability to not see what we don’t want to see.

      1. Elk375 Avatar

        BTW: Ida young sage hen is excellent eating. Old sage hen not so good.

      2. Jake Jenson Avatar
        Jake Jenson

        Ha ha, thanks Ida..

        “We humans have an amazing ability to not see what we don’t want to see.”

        We humans have an amazing ability to refuse to see what we don’t want to see and refuse to hear what we don’t want to hear.

        And refuse to read some or several things as well yet are willing to judge the content.

  9. Theo Avatar

    Sage-grouse are far more the canary in the coal mine than are wolves which can survive in a variety of habitats including degraded ones as long as they aren’t killed by man and they have prey. We have proof too that wolves can be re-established in areas from which they were extirpated. To the best of my knowledge that has not been demonstrated ever with sage-grouse. To date the same is true for their habitat. When they’re gone, they’re gone essentially forever. The sage-grouse is easily as magnificent a species as the wolf and far more unique. The many times I have held and carefully inspected live large cock sage-grouse I can’t help but think about dinosaurs.


Ken Cole is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He is the interim Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project.

We do not accept unsolicited “guest” authors or advertising.

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

Ken Cole