Sage grouse rules mostly happy talk

Nature Notes: Explaining the new land rules. Elko Daily Free Press. Oct. 10, 2015

SNIP: “Well-managed livestock grazing is compatible with sage-grouse conservation. The plan amendment did not close any grazing allotments or cut any AUMs. During the 10-year grazing permit renewals, management objectives will be put in place to protect habitat and rangeland health standards. These may include changes to the season of use, timing of use and number of livestock, among others. All grazing decisions will be made from the Elko District Office.”

Read this overview of the new sage grouse rules and you will see all the “wiggle room” in the new sage grouse regulatory rules and why all this hoopla about new regulations recovering sage grouse is mostly just happy talk.  Most restrictions only apply to what are designated as “Primary Habitat Management Areas”. Outside of these areas–even though they may contain sage grouse–usually no special restrictions will be applied. This will effectively shrink and fragment sage grouse habitat further, isolating populations and invariably leading to their continued decline.

For instance, no new mining claims can be made in sage grouse habitat for two years, but after that–well maybe if the Sec. of Interior says OK. And all existing claims and new claims will be grandfathered in.

No wind farms–well maybe–again depends on circumstances.

No oil and gas drilling–not on the primary habitat like lek sites, but directional drilling is OK (and thus fragmentation of the sage brush steppe will still occur with new roads, power lines, etc.). Though the USGS own scientists advocate buffers up to 5 miles from active leks, the regulations in the West are weaker. In Wyoming, for instance, where the greatest oil and gas development in sage grouse habitat is occurring, the required buffers are a mere 0.6 miles.

Power lines are prohibited in the priority habitat areas–unless of course there is no feasible alternative–and a number major power line proposals already in the works will be exempted from the rules.

The worst part is that this article repeats the same old myth that “well managed” livestock production is “compatible” with sage grouse recovery. Oh really? First all I seldom see “well managed” livestock grazing, but beyond that problem, is the fact that you cannot graze livestock without impacting grouse–even well managed livestock grazing has unavoidable impacts.

First, cropping (i.e. grazing) of grasses by livestock removes the hiding cover for nesting sage grouse hens, making them more vulnerable to predators both land based as well as avian predation. In addition, loss of cover means the nest and eggs are more exposed to daily temperature extremes which can harm the developing chicks.

Livestock eat the forbs (flowers) that young birds rely upon so there is direct competition for food between livestock and chicks.

Cattle trample the wet meadows and riparian areas that chicks rely upon for the first six weeks of life. In these areas they feed on insects and forbs. Trampling and soil compaction by cattle has shrunk theses riparian areas and wet meadows. Worse, cropping of grasses by livestock exposes the chick to greater predation losses.

Dewatering of springs with “water developments” shrinks riparian areas that are used by chicks during early life.

Sage grouse fly into the fences. Grouse are weak fliers, and a surprising number of birds die due to collision with fences.

Cattle spread and increase cheatgrass, which in terms leads to more fires in sage brush habitat. One of the biggest factors in sage grouse decline is the loss of sage grouse habitat due to range fires fueled by cheatgrass. Wildfires are natural in sage brush habitat, but the frequency is usually a long rotation of 50-250 years. Cheatgrass, an exotic annual, can and does burn every year, precluding the reestablishment of native grasses and sagebrush.

Water troughs are a source of mosquitoes that spread West Nile Virus to the birds.

Hay fields along riparian areas are major open areas with no cover that fragment sage grouse habitat (birds are reluctant to fly over large hay fields).

The list goes on and on–tell me how you can make enough changes to make livestock grazing “compatible” with sage grouse recovery?

Furthermore, the BLM regulatory plans rely on changes that “may” be made in the allotment management plans when they are renewed. However, these are only renewed every ten years. And due to a rider attached to the Defense budget euphemistically titled “The Grazing Improvement Act” grazing permits can be reauthorized for another ten years under the same terms and conditions that have degraded sage grouse habitats for decades.  So all this about grazing management plans being modified for the grouse is a bunch of happy talk because the BLM simply will not have the guts to do much more than minor changes–if they even get around to it. And sage grouse need changes now, not 10-20 years from now.


It is shameful that these regulartory rules are designed primarily to save ranchers, energy development companies and other industries from further restrictions on their exploitation of public lands (our lands) than saving the sage grouse from extinction.






  1. Barb Rupers Avatar
    Barb Rupers

    This is what Audubon is reporting about this plan:

    And a recent video by Sally Jewell of DOI;

    1. Nancy Avatar

      Barb, remember this thread from last year?

      I have a piece of BLM (about 200 acres) near me. I’ve started documenting the condition of the land which is mostly sage brush steppe. Supposedly it meets all standards but I would beg to differ. The area also falls under critical sage grouse habitat.

      The details from the map indicate there should only be 21 AUMs (cow/calf pairs) on it but there are far more cattle than that, from spring until the end of summer because the fence line is gone between the BLM land and the ranch that butts up against it (the ranch runs lease cattle on it)

      Just a suggestion, anyone out here in the west (concerned about the future of sage grouse populations) can find BLM near them on the map in Ralph’s thread (in the link above) and start their own documentation.

      Because as George says:

      “all this about grazing management plans being modified for the grouse is a bunch of happy talk because the BLM simply will not have the guts to do much more than minor changes–if they even get around to it. And sage grouse need changes now, not 10-20 years from now”

      1. Gary Humbard Avatar
        Gary Humbard

        Excellent point Nancy, because BLM managed land is public land any member of the public can hike on the land (even if the land has a grazing permit) and document (i.e. pictures, record number of cattle) any concerns they have to the local BLM District office. If this doesn’t resolve the problem, they should take it to the BLM State Office. Just be sure you don’t trespass on private land.

        Whether the fence is gone or not, if the map indicates there shouldn’t be more than 21 AUMs, then the BLM needs to make sure this is what is happening. I worked for the BLM and I always appreciated hearing from the public if there was a problem and we did our best to resolve it quickly.

        1. Nancy Avatar

          “Just be sure you don’t trespass on private land”

          Thanks for the tip Gary. This parcel is landlocked (ranch land on two sides) but fortunately, I have friends who’s land also butts up against this BLM land.

          Since you worked for BLM Gary, maybe you can shed some light on why one of the fence lines (adjoining private ranch land) is kept up and the other side, also private ranch land, is in disrepair and most of the original fence line is down or as I mentioned, gone?

          1. Gary Humbard Avatar
            Gary Humbard

            Nancy, I worked in western Oregon as a forester so I’m not an expert on grazing allotments, but I would think that the difference is that the rancher on one side is abiding by the grazing permit and keeping his fence in good condition and the other is NOT abiding and thus the poor condition or total lack of. I’m fairly certain it’s the responsibility of the rancher to maintain structures such as fences, water troughs, etc. and a call into the local BLM office asking why the disrepair or pure lack of the fence is allowed. If you decide to call I would be interested in what you find out.

  2. Theo Chu Avatar
    Theo Chu

    You simply can’t do “…well managed livestock grazing…” profitably anywhere with less than about 15 inches of annual precipitation, even at $1.49/AUM.


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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