Juniper Removal Red Herring

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has launched a massive juniper removal project in Idaho and plans to expand it throughout the Great Basin.

For instance, the BLM is also planning to destroy juniper woodlands in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.

Juniper is a common native species that grows in arid landscapes along with sagebrush and grasses.

The rationale given for the juniper removal is to improve sage grouse habitat. However, that is a red herring. The real reason is to create more forage for private livestock. Juniper removal gives the public the impression that the agencies are doing “something” to enhance sage grouse survival.

The BLM and the livestock industry suggest that juniper deforestation will benefit sage grouse because the juniper is occasionally used as perches by avian predators.

There are no studies that I’m aware of that demonstrate that use of juniper as perches by sage grouse raptor predators is common.

Furthermore, much of the habitat where juniper removal is occurring is steeper ground not typically utilized by sage grouse.

There is one paper (below) that suggests that juniper removal potentially increases sage grouse nest and adult survival by up to 25% which they attribute to removal of perches for birds of prey.  However, like other papers, the authors do not demonstrate that birds of prey are the main culprit for sage grouse mortality. They assume that juniper removal reduces avian predator losses, but the evidence is not conclusive.

Ravens, another bird that occasionally preys on nests and eggs, will use scattered juniper for perches. However, this does not appear to be common.

Plus, there is evidence that the presence of livestock (dead livestock and afterbirth) leads to higher raven numbers.

It is accurate to suggest that sage grouse avoid areas with any kind of woodland or trees. Even isolated trees in the midst of sagebrush country are sometimes avoided by grouse.

However, many studies show that birds of prey like golden eagles use fence posts for perching.  In areas where junipers have been removed, sage grouse tend to avoid the areas that have fences.

Besides, up to 30% of the mortality of sage grouse in some areas is due to collision with fences. Thus, if the BLM were genuinely concerned about the future of sage grouse, it would be eliminating or decreasing fences, not juniper.

Livestock degrades sagebrush habitat by eating and trampling and thereby, decreasing the hiding cover of grass exposing the bird to higher predation losses.

The bulk of BLM lands are in poor to fair condition, meaning grass cover is less than desirable. It’s possible that removing or reducing livestock grazing might lead to much higher sage grouse survival than juniper removal.  However, this alternative is never considered by the BLM due to its strong alliance to the livestock industry.

Livestock production also impacts sage grouse by the damage done to wetlands and riparian areas from trampling, the resultant soil compaction, and loss of vegetative cover due to livestock grazing. Sage grouse chicks are dependent on these wet areas where they feed on insects and specific flowers.

Livestock water troughs are used by mosquitoes that carry West Nile Virus, which can cause significant mortality in sage grouse.

Sage grouse avoid flying over vast expanses of non-sagebrush habitat created by hay fields. Considering many valley bottoms around the West have been converted to hay production, the resulting habitat fragmentation is significant.

Perhaps one of the main ways that livestock production harms sage grouse is by the spread of cheatgrass. Cheatgrass is an alien annual grass that is highly flammable. Cheatgrass spread is facilitated by livestock due to the selective grazing of native grasses. Removal of native grasses by livestock gives cheatgrass a competitive advantage in the competition for resources like water.

Furthermore, cattle hooves trample soil biocrusts, which generally grow in the spaces between native bunchgrasses. Biocrusts inhibit the establishment of cheatgrass.

Collectively all these livestock production factors create a “headwind” for sage grouse survival in many parts of the West. (Energy production, conversion of sagebrush habitat to wheat and hayfields, and so forth are also factors in sage grouse decline).

Another problem associated with the BLM justification for juniper removal is the use of old ideas about juniper and fire. According to the standard party line given by range conservationists and range professors (both of whom indirectly work on behalf of the livestock industry), juniper is “invading” due to “fire suppression.”

This myth was created by a range professor from Oregon State University Range Department who asserted that since range fires were frequent and low severity, burning sagebrush ecosystems every 10-25 years. Such recurrent blazes would logically preclude the establishment of juniper except on rocky sites and other areas where a fire was excluded.

However, research has concluded that most sagebrush species typically burn on a 50-400 year fire rotation. This creates a problem for the BLM argument that “frequent” fires limited juniper since it turns out that fires were not that regular.

In a more recent review of juniper fire ecology, the researchers concluded that “spreading, low-severity surface fires were likely not common.” Instead of low severity fires, the researchers found that “nearly all observed fires since EuroAmerican settlement in these woodlands were high-severity fires.”

Several more recent studies on juniper have verified this long rotation. For instance, a survey conducted in Dinosaur National Monument found that juniper fire rotations were 550 years. Similar long fire rotations of 400 years in one case, 480 years in the other have been reported.

Therefore, much of what is viewed as juniper “expansion” may be recolonization after high severity fires.

Climate change may also be contributing to natural juniper expansion.  Juniper establishment only occurs when there are favorable conditions for seed production and seedling survival.  Seedling survival is better in disturbed rangelands where livestock have decreased the competition from other vegetation.

All of which the BLM appears to ignore because it doesn’t fit the paradigm that justifies juniper removal.

The BLM does not address that juniper removal, and the disturbance that comes with it promotes the establishment and spread of cheatgrass. The highly flammable cheatgrass by shortening the regular fire rotation is a far greater threat to sagebrush ecosystems and sage grouse survival than the presence of juniper.

It’s essential to keep in mind that range conservationists and/or range professors/researchers whose jobs depend on the continuation of livestock grazing are the primary advocates of juniper removal. Just follow the money.

To the degree, that juniper removal might, in some cases, benefit sage grouse is a distraction or smoke screen. The more significant factors contributing to sage grouse declines, which include the cumulative impacts of livestock production continued to be ignored.




  1. Ted Chu Avatar
    Ted Chu

    The reason juniper and sage-grouse are incompatible is far less about juniper providing hunting perches for raptors and mostly about loss of sage habitat to encroaching juniper and the strong avoidance of anything over approximately a meter high by sage-grouse.

  2. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    I think Georges assessment makes sense but we have passed the point where ecological data will have much impact. We face a kind of diabolical, radical evil in the Trump administration, and the folks we elect to represent us do not seem to have a clue of what to do about it.

  3. idaursine Avatar

    However did the sage grouse manage before the BLM decided to rewrite the ecology? And again, what do they plan to do about the cheatgrass?

    This just makes no sense at all. We’ve seen it before, any birds such as crows who take advantage of the open opportunities will be added to the ‘removal’ list.

  4. idaursine Avatar

    There was the (lost) opportunity to put the sage grouse on the Endangered or Threatened list by the previous administration, and an alternative plan by the USF&W that was nixed by the ranching and extractive industry.

    It wouldn’t be realistic to think that the Trump administration would do anything to help the sage grouse. The opportunity may be lost.

  5. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    Red herring is right.

    No mention of the ‘massive’ clearing project for DODs RRB that is already underway deforesting a 150 mile radius around Lakeview, Oregon, extending from Oregon into Nevada and California.

    Wuerthner’s/WWP hands may be tied re: litigation but they are not for raising awareness. His and the enviro movement’s silence on RRB and vocality on trending GSENM is just more feckless conservation from conservationists who conflate with preservation.

    1. Theodore Chu Avatar
      Theodore Chu

      Hate to reveal my ignorance but RRB and GSENM?

      1. Terrel Avatar

        Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. Not sure what RRB is.

  6. idaursine Avatar

    “Conifer trees including junipers and pinyon began to expand in the Great Basin roughly 150 years ago when humans began suppressing wildfires. Since then, they have expanded their range more than sixfold, covering 14 million acres. The shrublike trees suck up scarce desert water, drying up springs and streams; altering soil acidity; and shading plants important to grouse, mule deer, jack rabbits and golden eagles.”

    You do have to wonder however the poor sage grouse managed (long before recent history), probably just fine until people started messing things up to put their own needs first. Further on down in the sentences about ‘saving the sage grouse’, there’s always the telltale ‘to benefit ranchers and to avoid an endangered species listing’.

    I suppose if you have no intention of curtailing human activity to save the sage grouse, this will have to suffice. Sort of like killing off predators to save the Selkirk caribou, when that isn’t the primary cause of the threat to them, but loss of habitat won’t be addressed:

  7. idaursine Avatar

    ^^No mention either of the non-native cheatgrass ‘transforming the sagebrush steppe habitat’, only the native juniper!

    There’s only one thing that has transformed the sagebrush steppe habitat, and that is human activity.

    1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      Yup – good old “human activity” has transformed pretty much everything on this poor planet – because of course – all that matters – is humans right? Well, up until we have eradicated every other species & their habitats. Then I guess we will transform ourselves somewhere else – maybe Mars???
      Wouldnt it be a novelty if our elected so-called representatives would remove their heads from their own election & actually do their job? (you thought I was going to say something else, right?)

    2. idaursine Avatar

      🙂 Ha! It all reminds me of the movie WALL-E – destroy one town, city, state, country, planet – and then move on to the next!

      1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
        Maggie Frazier

        Thats exactly what I was thinking! And if someone doesnt have an enlightening moment soon – thats what this planet will look like. Every time I read something about finding another planet that could sustain life – all I can think is DUMB___ stop destroying this one!!

  8. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    Just for the record the military out post known as Fort Meade in south Dakota (later 1800’s) used 5000 cords of wood per year just for heating. They also had their own saw mill for cutting lumber. And where did the ranchers get all their fence posts? Cedar and juniper trees.

    We are lucky to have any trees left and the idiots in BLM (now filled with people of little integrity) want to attack public lands more and more with a devious religiosity. Destruction is eminent as the clouds of the dark, cold, lifeless, bureaucratic storm darkens our skies.

    1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      Unfortunately, I’m afraid the people now in the BLM dont have the foggiest idea what integrity is!

  9. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    This Land by Christopher Ketcham, Viking Press explains a lot about the behavior in the BLM today. I’d say it is a must read. No other author I can think of has been willing to go into the necessary detail to tell the real story.

    1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      I’m looking forward to reading this book. Have read article by Chris Ketcham before & he knows what hes talking about!

  10. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    From an interview CK did on KALW. He’s 100% correct.

    “If you are a conservationist on the ground, in the west, on the public lands, you are going to deal with cattlemen quite a lot and they’re quite an aggressive bunch of folks and from my experience conservationists are a meek and wilting bunch of folks and don’t have the kind of necessary courage and stamina to stand up to the very aggressive cowboy culture.”


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