Sage Grouse Funding Priorities are Misplaced.


With much fanfare, as reported in the Great Falls Tribune, the Montana Sage Grouse Oversight Team announced that it will bequeath more than $1.5 million for a 18,033-acre conservation easement on the 44 Ranch west of Winnett in Fergus and Petroleum Counties. Ostensibly, the state money, as well as additional private and federal government funds, will be used to ensure that subdivisions and potential row cropping of sage grouse habitat on the 44 Ranch will not occur, but will guarantee that livestock grazing can continue. Here’s the link to the article

The irony of this situation is that the single biggest on-going threat to sage grouse comes from livestock production. There is virtually no threat of subdivisions in this part of central Montana near the Missouri Breaks, and while planting of row crops like wheat could potentially remove sage grouse habitat, most of the land that can potentially be farmed is already in wheat and other crop production.

The real crime is that taxpayer funds could be better spent removing livestock production from federal lands through permanent grazing permit retirement in core sage grouse habitat.  Under permit retirement, the rancher agrees to voluntarily give up his grazing privileges (and they are a privilege not a right) to public land grazing allotments in exchange for some amount of money. Already grazing retirement has reduced the impacts of livestock on many wildlife species including sage grouse.

Livestock trample nests and eggs. They trample wetlands and riparian areas that are utilized by sage grouse chicks for foraging insects and forbs early in their lives.

Livestock consume grasses that provide hiding cover, exposing grouse to greater predator losses.

Fences used to contain livestock are a major source of mortality for grouse which have been shown to suffer as much as 30% mortality from fence collisions.

Fences also serve as lookout posts for avian predators like eagles and ravens and grouse intuitively avoid fence lines, effectively removing much high-quality grouse habitat from potential sage grouse usage.

Livestock watering troughs serve as vectors for the spread of West Nile Virus which has decimated some sage grouse populations, and helps to boost raven populations that are predators on the grouse.

Livestock also are the major vector for the spread of cheatgrass, an annual grass that dries out early and provides fuel that facilitates wildfires in sage brush habitat throughout the West. The trampling of biocrust by livestock creates the disturbance that favors cheatgrass establishment, while trampling by livestock hooves effectively plant cheatgrass seeds.

The conversion of millions of acres of river bottoms to irrigated pasture fragments sage grouse habitat and in some cases, creates a barrier to movement to the grouse who are notoriously poor fliers and feel vulnerable crossing large open expanses of terrain without hiding cover afforded by sage brush.

The above is only a partial litany of the numerous ways that livestock production harms sage grouse. And yet the Montana Sage Grouse Team appears to ignore these multiple and on-going real impacts to sage grouse from livestock to address mostly imaginary and unlikely future threats like subdivisions in Fergus and Petroleum Counties.

The sad part of this situation is that we’ll continue to waste taxpayer funds on questionable investments like conservation easements in places where there is virtually no threat from subdivisions and continue to champion the on-going damage to sage grouse habitat from the livestock industry.



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  1. alf Avatar

    I can’t help but wonder how well connected — and to whom — the owner of the 44 ranch is to have pulled off that scam.

  2. Connie A. Reppe Avatar
    Connie A. Reppe

    Mr. Wuerthner, For instance more or less of $107 million dollars is vested through a partnership of people, and or an individual to bid on the sale of private “ranch land”. Public ownership is tomorrows future for land stewardship protections of wildlife, and environmental preservations. Reference:, U.S. Dept. of Interior, and the Blackfeet Tribal Government.

  3. Patricia Randolph Avatar

    The real tragedy is that we do not have leadership to work at the SOURCE – eating animals. Reference James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger who have done FIVE short films to convince CHINESE PEOPLE to cut meat consumption by 60% to save the climate.
    Unfortunately, and other so-called environmentalists are so politically correct or carcass-addicted that they cannot stand up for ending slaughterhouses, hunting, trapping and recreational killing. Since climate change, according to World Watch Institute intensive studies – is 52% caused by animal agriculture raping out rain forests from South America to Indonesia – and taking out habitat everywhere to toxic monocultures of corn and grain to feed slaughterhouse animals – we have work to do. Humans are very habitual. Change or be changed and take out life on this planet. We must change NOW.


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George Wuerthner