The Role of Livestock in Sage Grouse Decline

The Greater Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) is the largest grouse in North America. The grouse is found in sagebrush steppe from Alberta to New Mexico and throughout the Great Basin region of Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.  The sage grouse is extirpated from much of its former range and is no longer found in British Columbia, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico.

Habitat loss, combined with habitat degradation has led to its decline from a previous estimated population of 16 million to the present 250,000-500,000 across its remaining vast geographical range.  Because many of the remaining populations are small and fragmented, the bird’s population continues to decline due to random stochastic events like local winter storms that might cause an isolated group to wink out and perhaps as a consequence of genetic issues related to inbreeding depression.  The bird is currently under petition for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

The decline of the sage grouse is symptomatic of the overall decline of the ecological health of the sage brush steppe with which it is intricately entwined. In parts of the bird’s range, much of the sagebrush habitat in eastern Washington, northern Montana, and parts of Northwest Oregon has been converted to wheat and other agricultural croplands.

In parts of Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and Utah oil and gas development has led to significant habitat fragmentation of the sage brush steppe and thus declines in sage grouse.

In small areas, habitat has also been lost to urban and rural development, wind farms, power line corridors, and other factors.


But the common denominator in the bird’s decline across its entire geographical range is livestock production.

With the exception of the habitat acreage lost to agricultural production, these other factors have only recently become an issue for sage grouse survival. Sage grouse numbers have been falling for decades, long before some of these other factors like oil and gas development, power lines, wind farms, subdivisions, and so forth were an issue across much of its habitat, however, livestock have been degrading sage grouse habitat for a century or more.

Livestock affect sage grouse at every step of their life history.


Sage grouse lack a muscular gizzard so can’t eat seeds. They must consume soft foods. Although sage grouse depend on sage brush, they also do consume forbs (flowers) insects and perhaps even grasses at certain seasons. In summer months forbs can make up to 40% of the adult diet. Since cattle also eat these same plants, in many areas, cattle are consuming the food that might otherwise sustain sage grouse. In drought years (when competition between cattle and grouse is more intense) sometimes grouse will simply forgo breeding in low nutrition years. By contrast, hens in good nutritional shape will produce more eggs, and healthier chicks. So the mere presence of cattle and sheep grazing sage grouse habitat is literally taking food out of the mouth of sage grouse.

Sage grouse require good grass/forb cover under or near sage brush as hiding cover for nesting habitat to avoid predators. Grazing removes a lot of that cover, making hens vulnerable to predation from coyotes, ravens, and even ground squirrels. In Idaho they are poisoning ravens to “boost” sage grouse numbers–instead of leaving more grass behind to give sage grouse sufficient cover. If the grass cover is good, the hens are less vulnerable to predators.


Another impact of grazing on nesting success has to do with micro-climate. Males do not help raise the young or guard the eggs, thus the female must leave periodically to feed. During this time, it’s critical for the nest and eggs to have enough cover to moderate the nest environment. Temperatures either too hot or too cold can be disastrous to the eggs. Again livestock grazing often reduces this critical cover component.

Unlike some other “chicken like” birds say pheasant, sage grouse tend to have fewer eggs. They are a long-lived bird, but they can’t sustain high nest losses year after year.


After the chicks hatch, they feed mostly on insects and forbs in wet meadows and riparian areas. Forbs constitute up to 50% of their diet for the first 11 weeks. Insects are also important and may be as much as 75% of their diet in the first couple of weeks.

Unfortunately the activity that has destroyed more riparian habitat and wet meadows than any other is livestock grazing. Cattle trample the soils reducing the infiltration of water reducing the physical extent of wet meadows. They break down stream banks creating down cutting of stream channels which then causes the water table to fall, again reducing the extent of wet meadows or riparian vegetation.  Livestock trample springs, and/or ranchers often “develop” springs to water stock, in either case limiting their output which is the source for summer flows in many streams, again reducing the riparian influence.

Livestock are naturally attracted to wet meadows and riparian areas and preferentially graze these areas because high soil moisture increases overall plant production and palatablity. Yet the vegetation in these wet meadows and riparian area  is critical as hiding cover for chicks so they are not eaten by predators.

This effect of plant cover loss is amplified in drought years to the detriment of grouse. Since lower precipitation means less grass production and cover, chicks are already more vulnerable to predators. But in drought years, wet meadows are especially attractive to cattle which often graze them down to billiard table lawns with no cover for chicks or adult hens.

Yet another way that livestock production has impacted sage grouse is the loss of the best habitat to livestock production. Sage grouse do best on flat to slightly sloping terrain with some streams or wetlands close by. Of course, throughout the West, this is exactly the habitat that has been converted into private ranchlands. Native wet meadows and riparian areas have been destroyed and particularly the low elevation terrain has been converted to alfalfa fields and other exotic grasses. Overall across its vast geographical range this loss of this critical habitat element has reduced sage grouse numbers just as the conversion to wheat fields has negatively impacted the bird.


Sage grouse are vulnerable to habitat disturbance. Sage grouse are weak fliers. They prefer to walk. When there is anything like seeding projects or hay fields, or even a road, it can fragment habitat and make sage grouse either abandon habitat or avoid those areas, even if good habitat may exist beyond the barrier.

One of the linear barriers to sage grouse movement as well as habitat loss throughout sage grouse habit range is fences. A surprising number of sage grouse just fly into fences.  A number of studies have documented significant mortality from fences, particularly among young grouse.

Fences also provide perches for avian predators (i.e. golden eagles, hawks, ravens, etc.) that survey the surrounding terrain for sage grouse. Because sage grouse recognize that perches are a predator trap, some studies have shown that grouse avoid fences for up to a half mile on either side of the fence. That means for every mile of fence out there, you are losing a mile wide patch of habitat. Multiply this by all the livestock fences in the West, and you start to understand what a big impact fencing has upon grouse.

Why are there fences all over the open spaces of the West? One reason–livestock.

Of course sage grouse get their name because they eat sage brush most of the year. Without sage brush they starve. Plus sage brush provides cover from predators and thermal cover in winter when there is cold weather. This is particularly important in winter when “wind chill” can greatly increase metabolic demands. Grouse will even burrow into the snow under the branches of sage brush in cold weather. Thus they are sage brush obligates.


One of the biggest negative impacts on sage brush has been livestock management practices on sage brush itself. In many parts of the West federal agencies like the BLM, FS, etc. have and/or are either spraying herbicides and/or burning it to eliminate sage brush to produce more grasses for livestock to eat. Millions of acres have been impacted. This is less common today than in the past because of the potential listing of sage grouse, but one cannot underestimate how much damage has been done to the grouse over the years by sage brush elimination programs. Unfortunately it still occurs. Sage brush burning proposals designed to increase livestock forage in occupied sage grouse habitat are being implemented across western states.

There are also seeding programs that have had the same effect. The notorious Vale Project in eastern Oregon eliminated millions of acres of sage brush to plant crested wheatgrass, an exotic grass from Russia, that has little value for wildlife, but is grazed by cows. Again why was this done? To increase forage for livestock on the public lands.


One of the threats to sage grouse are range fires burning through sage brush. Wildfires are a natural occurrence and natural process in sage brush habitat, however, over the past few decades, the fire frequency has been greatly accelerated due to the widespread establishment of cheatgrass in the sage brush steppe. Cheatgrass is highly flammable.

Cheatgrass doesn’t magically appear and it has a difficult time invading healthy sage brush habitat.

However when sage brush steppe is degraded by livestock grazing, it reduces the competitive ability of the native grasses to complete with cheatgrass. Cattle prefer to graze on the native grasses (hence the name cheatgrass because in the old days ranchers felt “cheated” when cheatgrass replaced the natives). So while the native grasses are grazed and must recover from grazing, the cows largely ignore the cheatgrass.

The second factor in the spread of cheatgrass related to cows has to do with biocrusts. Biocrusts grow on the soil surface in-between the native grasses and sage brush. These soil crusts do several things including reduce soil erosion. But they also prevent the seeds of cheatgrass from getting into the soil. Cheatgrass as an annual plant has small seeds, and if the seed doesn’t get roots into the soil quickly they die. Native grasses have large seeds, and have enough energy to get roots through the crusts. Also since native grasses are long lived–up to 150 years–they only have to get a few seeds into the soil once a century to replace themselves.

By far the worst thing that cattle do is trample the biocrust. And it’s important to note that the entire Great Basin  did not have large herds of grazing animals like bison in historic times. The plant communities are therefore not adapted to trampling and heavy hooves tearing up the soil.

Worse for range recovery most native grasses require a decade without any grazing at all to begin to recover from a fire, but due to the pressure from ranchers, most rangelands seldom get more than 1-2 years rest before cattle are moved back on to them. This greatly reduces the recovery and favors cheatgrass again.


Another way that livestock has impacted sage grouse has to do with water troughs. In many of the drier parts of the West, ranchers have put out stock tanks to provide water. Stock tanks are good breeding habitat for mosquitoes. Mosquitoes carry West Nile Virus which kills sage grouse. In some populations, as much as 29% of the birds have died from the infection.


As sage grouse populations decrease, the negative effects of inbreeding regression sets in further eroding the viability of the species. So it may not seem like a big deal if a few breeding leks disappear or there remain some “strongholds” with grouse, keep in mind that grouse are a tournament species, meaning that a relatively few males do the bulk of all breeding. This significantly reduces the genetic diversity in small populations, making them further likely to wink out.

States and Wildlife Agencies are engaged in these so-called “Sage Grouse Working Groups” to avoid listing under the ESA.   But, those groups ignore livestock impacts and management that would leave sufficient cover of grasses and forbs in riparian areas and meadows during the summer brood rearing season.  Further, these groups are channels for Federal tax dollars to provide more vegetation treatments, more seedings, more range water developments, fences and infrastructure while not addressing the basic problem, overstocking and poor to no direct control over livestock.



  1. Joseph Allen Avatar
    Joseph Allen

    Great post George. When I was in grad school at the University of Wyoming in the late 70’s, I would visit a lek just outside of Laramie. Lots of strutting going on! Today, the grouse are gone. I lament the changing of our landscapes and the concomitant loss of species.

  2. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    I realize a lot of this, but what will replace the ranches? Solar and wind farms, fracking, development, overuse of limited water? I think the impact of human acitivies as a whole puts a whole lot of species’ habitat and future in jeopardy. I don’t think just removing all the cattle is going to do a whole lot. How do we reconcile all of this?

    As far as criminals, why do we continually give our politicians, especially those with a (D) after their names, a free pass?

    1. Brian Ertz Avatar
      Brian Ertz

      What will replace grazing ?

      How about a conservation ethic that recognizes:

      1. The intrinsic value of wild places and wildlife for its own sake

      2. Social and economic values which protect (a) water quality, at a fraction of the cost of treatment, (b) sustainable economic activities including hunting, fishing, recreation, etc. – all of which are wildly more productive of economic value than ranching, and all of which are currently depreciated in proportion to existing impact, (c) carbon sequestration, a recent follow-up on that Mojave study I wrote about years ago further demonstrates the above-intuitive degree to which public lands sequester carbon from the atmosphere even on arid landscapes – at a degree rivaling temperate forests.

      Etc. Etc. Etc.

      Listing Sage grouse will (and is) certainly test the political viability of the Endangered Species Act – but that test will prove to be a unique opportunity, fostering a watershed moment as it relates to our relationship with the land.

      1. Ida Lupines Avatar
        Ida Lupines

        That all sounds good, on paper of course.

        The reason I sympathize with Mr. Bundy is that the same thing is happening to us out here in the Bastion of Blue as well:

        Massachusetts residents have inherited a donut hole of unprotected waters. Most people don’t know that all of Nantucket Sound was once protected from industrial development as Cape and Islands State Ocean Sanctuary. This was undone in the 80’s when the federal government took back waters outside of the 3-mile state limit as part of Supreme Court case that involved a number of states in the Northeast – Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland and others. This legislation cannot be undone, and has left our coastal waters unprotected and susceptible to utility scale projects such as Cape Wind.

        Lest we forget Nantucket Sound has twice been nominated as a National Marine Ocean Sanctuary.

        1. Jay Avatar

          Not sure I’m seeing the logic Ida–you’re sympathetic to bundy because the BLM is trying to protect desert habitat by reducing the impacts of cattle grazing? How is that the same as what sounds like the complete opposite situation: putting habitat (Nantucket Sound) back into risk of development?

          1. Ida Lupines Avatar
            Ida Lupines

            They’re getting their land taken for solar farms, we’re getting our waters taken for wind farms – all forced by the Federal Government. I don’t believe the BLM is interested in protecting desert habitat for a minute – they are strictly the agents of the Federal government’s aims.

            1. Jay Avatar

              I guess that’s the downside to being a govt agency–you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

            2. Ida Lupines Avatar
              Ida Lupines

              Its awful – the absolute worst place to put a large-scale power plant possible, IMO. Almost as if they have absolutely no regard for our livelihoods, terribly endangered right whales, or anything else.

            3. Gary Humbard Avatar
              Gary Humbard

              Ida, I worked for the BLM for 37 years in western Oregon and unfortunately I agree that politicians made management decisions instead of scientists. We knew we were overcutting timber to the detriment of the northern spotted owl but top managers would not listen to the folks on the ground and the scientists. The ESA saved the NSO and it will save the sage grouse.

              I agree with Brian regarding what should replace livestock grazing. Hunting, fishing and environmentally sound recreation (ie. OHV riding in designated areas, hiking, bird watching).

              I’m not sure if conservation easements would be feasible but if so conservation organizations could provide funds that protects areas from livestock grazing.

              1. Doug tracy Avatar
                Doug tracy

                It is so irresponsible that livestock gets all the blame for this. if you accept that argument that you must also agree that the introduction of Elk, big horn/Dahl sheep, (feral) wild horse, and Chukar, (to areas where they are not native). which also compete for the same resources. Okay another one. Urban development has encroached more on native habitat which no one in the govt. will admit. Ok another one, by there own study (blm) the raven, which is a protected species cause more havoc/damage to eggs than any other species but lets not talk about that. My last rant, wildland fire is big business, check you stats for wildlife land lost in the past 10 years apposed to the years prior.

            4. Ed Loosli Avatar
              Ed Loosli

              Ida: Please step back a moment. Bundy in Nevada is not grazing (over grazing) his own land — He is over grazing OUR public land and not paying his lease-fees. It is not his land and no one is putting a solar project anywhere near where he is grazing (over-grazing). Much of the BLM land near Bundy’s little 150 acre “ranch” is kept to low grazing or no grazing because of protections for the desert tortoise.

  3. Steve Avatar

    The comment on bison is a bit uninformed. There is a huge pile of bison remains located in Cathedral Gorge State Park and dated 600 years old that would put the lie to that argument. Just because we don’t have “contemporary” historical records doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. You also overlook completely the affects of livestock graing in the 19th century that in part allowed for the grouse boom by removing perennial grass cover and giving the sagebrush a competitive advantage which allowed ts spread. Then shall we go further in to the entire horse issue? Talk about something Nevada ranges are not adapted to! But let’s not talk just about grazing, let’s talk about the total failure of the BLM to stop habitait changing fire or cheatgrss incursion. It has all occurred on their watch, all of it. The problem is not grazing it is federal “management” of Nevada lands and an over reaching federal government.

    1. Jay Avatar

      How can you assert that grazing is not a problem and cheatgrass is, when the proliferation of cheatgrass is due directly to overgrazing that disturbs native grasslands?

      1. Barb Rupers Avatar
        Barb Rupers

        Morton Peck spoke of the change in Oregon’s vegetation in his book A Manual of Higher Plants of Oregon, published in 1941 before the formation of the BLM or the designation of National Wilderness Areas. Bromus tectorum is cheat grass.

        “The changes in vegetation brought about directly or indirectly through human agency is immense. These comprise first, the introduction of foreign species, second, deforestation by lumbering operations and forest fires. and third, excessive pasturing of domestic animals. througout most of the cultivated sections of the state the native species have been very largely displaced by foreigners.” “Even where there is relatively very little agriculture, these invaders are often dominant; thus the most abundant plant of the whole Eastern Oregon Area is Bromus tectorum , an old-world weedy grass.

        Overpasturing by cattle and more particularly by sheep has greatly changed the aspect of the vegetation over large areas. Short-sighted and unwise management of the grazing lands of the National Forests extending these even over the “Primitive Areas” has had and is still having a disastrous effect upon the native vegetation.”

        1. Jay Avatar

          That’s speaks directly to my point to Steve, thanks for digging that up Barb. I suppose one could still blame BLM in that they are the ones that are supposed to regulate the number of livestock on the ground, but we’ve all see what happens whenever they try to do the right thing and reduce stocking rates. Unfortunately, agencies like the BLM and the Forest Service are between a rock and a hard place–they’re directed by their masters to continue to exploit for maximum profit, and they’re sued by conservation groups to adhere to environmental standards/laws in direct conflict with the former.

  4. rork Avatar

    Why is it called cheatgrass? The first sentence of the first quote is what I figured – but it was always just guessing.
    “Cheatgrass grows early in the spring, before most native grasses, so can often utilize early season moisture leading to less moisture for native species. But it is called cheatgrass not for this trait but because it is a poor forage for livestock since it browns up so early in season and has poor nutritional value.”
    “so called by farmers whose wheat yields dropped when it gained a foothold”
    “Farmers call it cheatgrass, since it reduces their wheat harvest substantially”
    “It’s called cheatgrass in the first place because it fools farmers into thinking their winter wheat is coming along well.”

    Thanks for a nice article.

  5. Cody G Avatar
    Cody G

    Great article. It’s amazing to me that state agencies and large groups of people will blame every other thing (particularly predation from other animals or other animals in general) on a decline of a species and at the same time completely ignore all of the major things that completely decimate wildlife on such a large scale. And to think only 200 years ago North America was just about as pristine as a country can get and bounding with wildlife.

  6. George Wuerthner Avatar

    The comment about bison is not inaccurate. The main range of bison was east of the Rockies. Occasional intrusions into the Great Basin and elsewhere did occur but the best evidence suggests these were not large herds and the occurrence of bison ebbed and flowed.

    There were, for instance, bison remains found in Malheur Lake in eastern Oregon as well which has some genetic deformity suggesting a small isolated inbred population.

    There were also bison reported in southern Idaho and northwest Utah recorded in historic times by the beaver trappers.

    The evidence suggests that occasionally bison “leaked” over the Continental Divide in small numbers. But small numbers does not invalidate the generalization, any more than one can find some 99 year old grandmother who smoked three packs of cigarettes a day and died peacefully from something other than lung cancer. That still would not invalidate a generalization that smoking will likely contribute to an earlier death.

    The evidence suggests that large herds of bison were absent west of the Rockies. And the plant communities in this region are highly sensitive to grazing pressure as a result.

    1. topher Avatar

      Define “large herds”. Extensive archaeological evidence supports the existence of bison throughout Idaho.

      1. topher Avatar

        A quick skim through Peter Skene Ogden’s journals also supports the existence of large herds in of bison in Idaho.

        1. topher Avatar

          To compare the first written account of the area to a grandma that smokes too much is a mistake. I would appreciate a link to evidence that suggests otherwise. While it may be that seasonal habits of bison or other differences including artificial water sources for livestock could be the determining factor for grouse habitat I think it’s clear that bison were in the area and existed in large numbers.
          When Skeen says ” Have never seen buffalo so numerous” its clear there were more than a few leaking over the divide. Contained in the same link are part of the journals of Kittson who also describes “Plenty buffaloes, many killed.” So while these accounts may not be smack in the middle of current Sage Grouse habitat they are reliable historical accounts of bison west of the Rockies and absent any other evidence I see no reason to discount them.

  7. Randy Gaebe Avatar
    Randy Gaebe

    The discussion of the numbers of bison that were likely grazing in the intermountain west vs. great plains leads me to bring this parallel. Stocking density of livestock operations (animal units per acre) on rangeland declines significantly as you move west from the tall grass prairie to the dry desert lands in the western US, mostly due to rainfall. It is highly likely that densities of bison populations across this same range of land would’ve similarly declined, due to precipitation and forage volume.
    As a cattle producer in western ND, it pains to hear such hatred expressed toward my fellow food producers on sites like this. There’s a definite need for all of us to live in better harmony, as Jesus wanted. Have a Happy Easter weekend.

    1. Gary Humbard Avatar
      Gary Humbard

      The vast majority of remarks on this site do not express a hatred for ranchers. The issue was the dramatic decline of sage grouse due to livestock grazing practices.

      It pains me to know that at one time there were 16 million sage grouse and now there are only 500,000 at most left. It pains me as I drive through eastern Oregon and see vast areas overgrazed by cattle and see native grasses replaced by cheatgrass soley for benefit of cows.

      The livestock industry is one of the most powerful groups in the US. Unfortunately I do not see evidence that the majority have your opionion that we need to live in better harmony.

      Ultimately, I blame the BLM and FS for these agencies control 80% of the land that is grazed in the west. Their inability and ineffectiveness in assuring that streams and riparian areas are protected, native species of wildlife and plants are restored and maintained and that livestock is allowed to graze in a enviromentally sustainable manner.

      1. Ida Lupines Avatar
        Ida Lupines

        The more overpopulation and the more development of this country and the further we encroach into wild or unpopulated areas, the worse it is going to be for wildlife. It’s not just the ranchers.

      2. GPM Avatar

        Watch the YouTube video: Bud Purdy Idaho Ranching and Conservation. I’m sure you’ll find it interesting.

  8. George Wuerthner Avatar
    George Wuerthner

    A few observations do not disprove the generalization. Just as I can say that harlequin ducks are rare in the Rockies, even though you can find them in Glacier NP, near Yellowstone and a few other places in the northern Rockies. Their main range is the Pacific Coast.
    The same is true for bison.

    I’m very familiar with the journals of fur trappers. I have done a considerable amount of historical review of early wildlife observations in the West. For instance, I published a review of early wildlife observations in Oregon (available on line).

    In addition, I have read all the other trapper and explorer journals I could obtain from other parts of the West. I have reviewed dozens of accounts.

    What you find is that bison occurrence was a shifting mosaic–an ebb and flow of bison, perhaps driven by favorable climatic conditions (a period of moister conditions that favored greater plant productivity) or other natural stochastic events.

    Even on the Great Plains bison numbers ebbed and flowed. For instance, in the 1100-1400 AD there was a massive drought on the plains. Bison numbers plummeted and many of the Indian tribes there abandoned the plains and focused most of their populations along permanent water supplies like the Missouri River where many began to grow corn etc. This same drought drove the Anasazi Indians to the Rio Grande). At other times, bison numbers increased due to higher precipitation and plant productivity, and no doubt some “leakage” occurred as the herds expanded from the plains.

    Even in the absence of long term climate change, there were times when explorers and trappers did not encounter bison for extensive periods of time–weeks or more depending on their travel routes.

    To give one example, when Lewis and Clark were traveling to the coast across Montana, once they reached beyond the Great Falls of the Missouri,they continued up the Missouri River through what is Cascade Montana, past the Gates of the Mountains through what is now the Helena Valley, past Three Forks Montana, into the upper Beaverhead Valley past today’s Dillon, MT and over Lemhi Pass into the Upper Salmon River Valley without sighting a single bison.

    Of course they went down the Clearwater, Snake and Columbia Rivers in western Idaho and eastern Oregon without sighting any bison either (most of which is sage grouse habitat at least in the past but was never considered bison habitat though it is grasslands)

    Similarity when traveling back to St.Louis from Oregon in 1806 the party split near present day Missoula and Clark traveled through the Bitterroot, Big Hole, Gallatin and upper Yellowstone valleys without encountering a single bison. He reported the first bison sightings near present day Billings, Montana which is a considerable distance east of the Continental Divide.

    That’s a lot of country without a bison sighting (though they did report seeing bison trails near Livingston, Montana) and there are “buffalo jumps” in other valleys such as the Madison Valley, and near Challis Idaho, among other locations that indicate some further westward occurrence of bison at times.

    In my review of early wildlife observations for Oregon, I did not find one reference to bison in the state.

    Even in much of southern Idaho, bison were rare. John Day, one of the Astorians, traveling to the coast in 1811 nearly died in western Idaho and eastern Oregon because of a lack of any game.

    When Jedehiah Smith crossed the Great Basin from the Sierra Nevada to rendezvous at Bear Lake on the Utah/Wyoming border in 1827, he and his party nearly starved because there was so little big game in Nevada.

    Even Peter Skene Ogden who did extensive travels in eastern Oregon, northern Nevada, and so forth did not report any bison in that Great Basin country either, though he, like others, did find bison in eastern Idaho and NW Utah.

    All of these Idaho and Utah references are within a hundred or hundred fifty miles air miles of the Continental Divide–easily close enough to be considered “leakage” from the main bison range on the plains.

    Other indications of the lack of bison west of the Divide is the fact that most of the native people living west of the Divide either did not have a bison hunting culture (Paiutes in Great Basin) and/or went to great length to hunt bison on the Great Plains once they acquired horses (i.e. Nez Perce, Shoshone, Flathead, etc.). If bison had been readily available to the Nez Perce who resided in western Idaho and NW Oregon, etc. or the Shoshone that lived in southern Idaho and parts of northern Utah, do you think they would annually make huge pilgrimages to the Great Plains to hunt bison at great risk of encountering other tribes like the Blackfeet?

    finally there is the evolutionary evidence from the plant communities themselves. The native grasslands are intolerant of heavy grazing pressure. Unlike plants on the plains that have low growing points and/or other adaptations like rhizome growth, the main grasses found west of the Divide take a long time to recover from cropping. ( Mack and Thompson 1982) for more on this.

    Taken together all these references suggest that bison occurrence was rare and spotty. Hardly a major presence and influence on the plant communities of this region.

  9. George Wuerthner Avatar
    George Wuerthner

    Here’s some of the early wildlife observations for eastern Oregon and southwest Idaho (around the Snake River country near Boise) which I compiled.

    Wildlife was even scarcer in parts of eastern Oregon and adjacent parts of Idaho which were then all part of Oregon Territory. For example, Franchere (1967) relates the experiences of the overland Astorians who had traveled with Wilson Price Hunt by canoe, horse and foot to the mouth of the Columbia from Montreal. On January 2nd, 1812 the travelers Donald McKenzie, Robert McCllellan, and Mr. Reed, arrived at Astoria and related a story of extreme hardship.

    According to Franchere, for twenty days, McKenzie’s party followed the Snake “finding nothing at all to eat and suffering horribly from thirst.” Several times mounted Indians approached them, and each time, the Astorians would shoot a horse out from under one of the Indians, then devour it, saving themselves from starvation. They would leave some trinkets as payment.

    Alexander Ross (1849), another Astorian based at Fort Astoria between 1811-1814 near the mouth of the Columbia relates the near starvation of the Wilson Price Hunt’s party of overland Astorians encountered in southern Idaho and eastern Oregon. The Hunt party saw few Indians and the Indians encountered were “destitute”themselves. “At this time a starving dog that could hardly crawl along was a feast to our people, and even the putrid and rotten skins of animals were resorted to in order to sustain life.”

    Traveling along the Snake River in Idaho Ross comments that Hunt’s party found: “That part of the country where they were was destitute of game, and the provisions of the whole party taken together were scarcely enough for two days journey. At that season of year the Indians retire to the distant mountains, and leave the river till the return of spring, which accounts for their absence at this time.”

    Hunt’s party split into four different groups, figuring that it would be easier to find food to feed four smaller groups than one large group. Individually, each party made its way towards Fort Astoria with varying degrees of suffering.

    Crooks and John Day, two hunters with the Hunt Party left behind with the Snake Indians to trade suffered terribly. The Indians eventually left them, having run out of food themselves, so Crooks and Day were left their own devices. Crook’s story is related by Ross.

    Ross (1849) says Crooks and Day gathered some roots, started a fire, and built a brush teepee or hut. But they were so weak, the fire went out and they did not have the energy to start another. Fortunately two Indians happened by who rekindled the fire and gave them venison. Shortly after, a wolf ventured by which John Day was able to shoot.

    This food gave them enough strength to travel again and eventually Crooks and Day reached the Umatilla area where they were befriended by some Indians. Eventually they reached Fort Astoria.

    Ross tells of another Hunt party group trials. Donald McKenzie’s party traveling through the Blue Mountains in December of 1811 “suffered much and were at one time five days without a mouthful to eat, when, fortunately, they caught a beaver; and on this small animal and its skin, scarcely a mouthful to each, the whole party had to subsist for three days.”

    Ogden repeats this same scenario. Leading a trapping expedition through eastern Oregon in November of 1826, Ogden (1909) noted that “the country is destitute of animals and we may prepare to starve altho’ wild fowl seem to abound.” Later he writes “provisions scarce prospects gloomy… no game… The hunters are discouraged. Day after day from morning to night in quest of animals; but not one track do they see.” Ogden plight is not due to an inability to secure food. He notes that Indians of the region were also starving and had resorted to cannibalism. “She herself had not killed any one, but had fed on two of her own children who died thro’ weakness.”

    1. topher Avatar

      Thank you. I was hoping for something besides trapper journals but when that’s all there is. On closer inspection I noticed even the references to bison in the journals seem to be in one general area.

    2. Larry Thorngren Avatar

      John Work (Leader of the Hudson Bay Company Snake River Expeditions) reported that there were so many Bison in the Big Lost River Valley of Idaho in the early 1800s, that his horses were starving because the Bison had consumed all of the grass.

      1. Tom Page Avatar
        Tom Page

        George –

        One source that strongly suggests the continual presence of bison in the Upper Salmon Basin for several thousand years is James Chatters’ UW thesis on the Paleoecology of the Upper Pahsimeroi, completed in 1982. I would also suggest reading Warren Ferris, and particularly his map showing the extent of the bison ranges in 1835, as he knew it. I suspect he knew it very well, given his five years on horseback in the country. The Ferris journal, by far the best wildlife record we have of Idaho from this era, also fails to mention sage grouse (as does Work) which is an interesting omission.

  10. HoofHugs Avatar

    I have done some research on the sage grouse due to my curiosity about the possibility that the bird is unrecoverable due to the fact that it is a subspecies and not a species.

    According to the reports I read, the female will leave her territory if she cannot find a male sage grouse to mate with, and her offspring will be hybrids. The way the word hybrid is used it is unclear if the authors meant that the offspring will not be a pure 100% sage grouse or whether or not the offspring will be both a mix and infertile.

    Although the sage grouse sppears to have originated in North America, its parent is likely to have originated here during the great migration 10,000 years ago when a lot o the birds in the Eurasion Steppe found the grasslands of the West. In the Eurasian Steppe, most grouse have migrated to the boreal forest and only two still rely on the grasslands for habitat.

    While researching the origins of the horse and burro, I discovered that there is an apparent trend in the wildlife sciences to ignore that natural processes that nature put into place for wildlife and plants to survive during climate change. These changes led to the impressions that some scientists had based on fossil evidence alone that there had been multiple species of horse in North America. However, when these the techniques of accessing mitochondrial DNA of the horse and the plants that existed in the same habitat during the same time became more sophisticated, evidence began to suggest that the variations in size and shape of the horse was at least in part a result of the plasticity of some areas in the species genetic make-up that allows the species to adapt in size, shape, coat thickness, hoof size, nostril and ear shape based on the environment. Although there is no question that human intervention has refined what nature put into place, this phenomena is not only present in the horse, but in other species as well.

    Therefore, it is not reasonable to expect that the sage grouse will not adapt either through changing physical traits or through migration to a more suitable climate. This is the way that it has happened in nature for millions of years.

    Perhaps it is time for geneticists and paleoanthropologists to weigh in on the sage grouse. Perhaps there are other factors involved in the grouse’s decline although the ones George mentioned are significant. It’s just that it doesn’t not make a lot of sense to put so much effort into ensuring that a subspecies is not lost. The only way to do this would be to put a net over the entire territory.

    I am very concerned that a group of scientifically credentialed individuals are attempting to custom design the natural world in their vision, and that their vision not only differs from nature’s, but contradicts it entirely. We have federal agencies with fallible human beings deciding that species that did not originate here cannot live in a particular area.

    These scientifically credentialed individuals agreed to a prevent, control, eradicate alien species in states where they are found outside their normal range. However, there is no evidence at all that they put any effort in determning what nature had done before human beings came along to build boats to cross oceans or to build bridges.

    It is of great concern that our climate and species memory is only a couple of 100 years old when the geological and paleoanthropological history of the Earth is so much longer and contradicts the evidentiary challenged opinions of those who proclaim that they are “experts” and should be given the responsibility to determine which species of plant or animal anywhere in the world where their countries signed either the UN CBD or the 1997 IPPC.

    Meanwhile, in the same Article 8 (h) that makes native wild horses outlaws in their homeland, a special case was made for the case of genetically engineers or genetically modified organisms. Monsanto even had a representative on the first citizens advisory committee to the National Invasive Species Council. So the gray wolf, grizzly, rabbits,cattle, sheep, goats, and swine, as well as two species that always returned to North America after every climate extreme—but were prevented due to the human intervention or they just may have found the Degree Land Bridge through Northern Europe through Greenland back to Canada and regions below.

    You talk about cheat grass. Wild horses eat cheat grass. They can eat it in the spring when it is tender, but they will eat it once it gets dry because horses eat constantly. They can do quite well on much less nutrient dense forage due to their post gastric digestive system.
    One of the problems with removing the horse and burro is that their teeth have ridges in them that allow them to chew this dry grass and digest it. Cows only have teeth on their lower jaw and need to pull grass out of the ground with their tongues. The cheat grass grazing machines are locked up in BLM corrals instead of being on the range where they could thin out this grass without adding pesticides and other contaminants to the range.

    Notice that the range has gotten in worse and worse shape since the BLM began such large removals while leaving millions of cattle on the range. If the BLM were using the type of pasture and land management taught at most land grant universities, it is possible that the degradation that has occurred would not have happened, at least not to the degree it has.

    It may be time for all of us to insist on getting more highly qualified scientists with specialties in molecular biology, genetics, geology, paleoanthropology, and other experts that have published in rigorously peer reviewed journals. One third of our countries land, water, wildlife,grasslands, and grazing land has been mismanaged or at least 25 years, possibly longer. It is time to correct our attempts to mitigate the natural changes that occur on our continent rather than to study animals like the horse that have successfully adapted to the heat of the desert and the subarctic cold. Maybe we should study the survivors rather than destroy them.

  11. smalltownID Avatar

    The first four paragraphs were accurate, after that this article was simply propaganda with distorted information.

    The following quotes made me laugh:

    “Sage grouse are weak fliers.” Compared to what? Geese? They aren’t geese George. They are strong fliers among their family of birds with the ability to move 100+ km even with broods!

    “Sage grouse do best on flat to slightly sloping terrain with some streams or wetlands close by.” The highest densities of sage-grouse in Idaho were on the Big Desert where streams and wetlands are few and far between. Many populations thrive in montane environments of the Great Basin.

    “A surprising number of sage grouse just fly into fences. A number of studies have documented significant mortality from fences, particularly among young grouse.”
    ONE study by Bryan Stevens. No analysis of age of birds colliding with fences in that study but nice attempt to pull on heart strings. The authors did NOT conclude that mortality was significant. They didn’t quantify mortality, only strikes. Rather, the authors concluded “population-level impacts of fence collision on sage-grouse demography are unknown”.

    Quit pretending to be a sage-grouse expert George in order to further your cause. Sage-grouse are certainly negatively impacted by livestock but the facts matter if you are going to make that argument. You may think you are doing a good turn but misinformation makes it even more difficult for those who are actually trying to conserve the species.

  12. smalltownID Avatar

    It should also be noted that livestock grazing can have positive impacts on sage-grouse habitat as well. This is important. See Beck and Mitchell 2000 “Influences of livestock grazing on sage grouse habitat”

    Idaho currently has a 10 year research plan to quantify this relationship better. Should be interesting.

    1. Ken Cole Avatar

      It will be interesting since the people who are doing it are a bunch of cow apologists like yourself.

  13. Nancy Avatar

    “When it comes to cattle, BLM plays with a marked deck,” Stade added, pointing out the PEER analysis that will become part of PEER’s new grazing reform web center set to launch in several weeks. “We are posting BLM’s own data in a way that allows apples-to-apples comparisons while displaying satellite imagery that depicts the true livestock landscape impacts.”

    Kudos to PEER!

    1. Ed Loosli Avatar
      Ed Loosli

      Thanks Nancy for keeping us educated and on-track to where we should be focusing. PEER is certainly a very special organization in the cause of protecting our public lands.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner