Sage Grouse research deceptions


The headline in a recent Capital Press article proclaims that “Preliminary data shows cattle, sage grouse can coexist”.

The article then goes on to quote various researchers who are at the beginning of a ten-year study. According to the article, grazing allotments were grazed according to traditional patterns for two years, then the third year, grazing on at least one study plot was terminated. Other pastures alternated between spring grazing and resting in even and odd years or were grazed during both the spring and fall before resting.

University of Idaho professor Courtney Conway, one of the researchers then suggested that “Compared to pastures that were rested that spring, we aren’t seeing a difference in sage-grouse nesting success in (grazed pastures).

However, Conway does suggest tall grasses improve chick survival.

Karen Launchbaugh, director of UI’s Rangeland Center, admits it’s too early to draw solid conclusions from the study, but says she is at least pleased there have been no “big red flags” suggesting cattle and sage grouse can’t coexist.

The problem with the entire happy talk is that the study is only in the early stages of its research. Basically, they have one year of without grazing and other management measures, and to suggest after such a limited time period that “cattle, sage grouse can co-exists” is pushing the limits of credibility.

One could just as easily proclaim “study can’t say whether cattle and sage grouse co-exist” and it would be just as accurate, in fact, from a scientific perspective, more accurate.  However, that wouldn’t get points with ranchers, Public Lands Council, Idaho Cattlemen’s Association, and the other agencies funding the project.

Furthermore, the title misrepresents what is known about livestock grazing impacts on sage grouse. Cattle impact sage grouse in multiple ways throughout their lifecycle. You can’t just look at one factor and proclaim cattle and sage grouse can co-exist.

Grouse collide with fences and suffer high mortality as a result. Grouse get West Nile Virus from mosquitoes that breed in cattle water troughs. Cattle compact and degrade wetlands and riparian areas that are critical feeding areas to young grouse. Cattle remove hiding cover for nesting hens, and of course, expose both chicks and adults to predators. Cattle by trampling biocrusts facilitate the establishment of cheatgrass, a highly flammable grass that is burning away sage habitat.

Even the hay fields so common around the West are a problem for grouse. First, in most cases, native vegetation was removed to create grassy open pastures and field, removing a significant amount of grouse habitat. Furthermore, the hay fields fragment grouse habitat. As poor fliers, they are reluctant to cross open fields without cover.

In short happy talk that cattle and sage grouse can co-exist is deceptive at best, and just another example of how range departments seek to promote private livestock interests over the public’s desire to see its wildlife flourish.






  1. rork Avatar

    It sounded like the study design has some chances at learning something, if it’s large enough. Maybe it is lacking an arm that goes “closed to grazing and efforts at restorations attempted”, not that I know what treatments people use for restoration projects in that landscape.
    Tiny detail: On tall grass prairie in MI, we use fire, but the exact timing and frequency (and costs) are still under study. This year I saw mid-summer burns in places where big blue-stem is doing a little too-well, aided by burns being in spring repeatedly.

  2. Josh Avatar

    Sage grouse are poor flyers….. LOL. They literally fly all over hell all the time.