The Hoover Wilderness lies on the Bridgeport Ranger District. Photo George Wuerthner 

Photo George Wuerthner 

There is not often good news to report when it comes to livestock grazing on public lands; but I finally have something positive to convey: four vacant grazing allotments will remain closed by a draft decision of the Bridgeport Ranger District of the Toiyabe National Forest in California.

The district ranger made the right decision when he choose the no grazing alternative because he reasoned correctly “not authorizing livestock grazing enhances the ability of the project area to provide high quality wildlife and fish habitat and watershed protection.”

Cattle grazing beneath the Sierra Nevada near Bridgeport, CA. Photo George Wuerthner 

Domestic sheep initially grazed the four allotments. However, livestock grazing was terminated on the Dunderberg, Tamarack, Cameron Canyon, and Summers Meadow allotments to protect bighorn sheep from domestic animal diseases.

Sierra Nevada Bighorn sheep were listed under the ESA in 2000. Photo George Wuerthner 

Sierra Nevada Bighorn sheep were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2000 when their population had cratered to 100 animals. With protection, the population is now approximately 600 bighorns.

Domestic cattle can compete with bighorn sheep for forage. Photo George Wuerthner

Nevertheless, the livestock industry sought to have these allotments opened for grazing by domestic cattle. While cattle may present a diminished threat to bighorn sheep, they still compete for forage and can socially displace wild sheep from the best habitat. Though rare, cattle have also been identified as a source of transmission of disease to bighorn sheep.

Reopening these allotments to any livestock grazing will harm Threatened and Endangered species, sage-grouse, water quality, soils, plant communities, and recreation.

Sage grouse are the largest members of the grouse family and are restricted to sagebrush habitat. 

One of the significant concerns of reopening these allotments is the Bi-State District population of Sage Grouse. Conservation groups have sought to have the Bi-State population listed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) under the Endangered Species Act.

At one-time sage grouse were so common, that they formed vast flocks. For example, in 1886 near Casper Wyoming, George Bird Grinnell, witnessed “great numbers” of sage grouse fly over his camp. He saw hundreds of birds take flight. Grinnell said the number of sage grouse that took flight reminded him of the old-time flights of the extinct passenger pigeon. “Before long, the narrow valley…was a moving grey mass”, he wrote.

I recall reading an account of the first supervisor of the Humboldt National Forest recounting how as a kid living outside of Elko, Nevada, he would ride his horse home from school with a long stick, knocking sage grouse out of the sky. Sometimes, he said, they would go out hunting for a weekend and fill a wagon with dead birds.

Map showing historic (green) and current (blue) distribution of sage grouse. 

Like many candidate species, the effort to protect species has been significantly influenced by politics.

The Mono Basin is home to the Bi-State District Population Segment of sage grouse. Photo George Wuerthner 

In 2002, the Institute for Wildlife Protection, which I served as a board member, petitioned the USFWS to list the “Mono Basin” later labeled the Bi-State sage grouse as a “distinct population segment.” I wrote part of the petition documenting the multiple ways that livestock grazing impacted sage grouse. At that time, the USFWS declined to list the species suggesting there was no evidence the Mono Basin population was distinct.

As a result of a citizen petition in 2013, the USFWS proposed listing the Bi-State sage-grouse as Threatened with a 4(d) rule and proposed designated critical habitat for the declining bird. But in 2015, USFWS reversed its decision and withdrew the proposal, refusing to list the Bi-State sage grouse.

Sierra Nevada at Conway Summit, Bridgerport Ranger District. Photo George Wuerthner 

Conservation groups challenged the USFWS decision. The court ruled that the “not warranted” finding for the Bi-State sage grouse was not founded in sound science. The proposed listing under the ESA was reinstated.

A recent assessment of the Bi-state population sage grouse population by the United State Geological Survey has documented an 80.7% decline over the past 53 years. Despite mitigation efforts, the grouse are still declining at 2.2-3% a year.

Fences are a threat to many wildlife species. Here a deer was caught in a fence. The only reason to have fences on public lands is to facilitate private livestock production. Photo George Wuerthner 

Cattle grazing can impact sage grouse in multiple ways. The fences used to manage livestock are a significant source of death for the low flying grouse. In some locations, fences account for as much as 29% of mortality.

Ravens are a major predator on sage grouse eggs and chicks. Grazing by livestock by removal of hiding cover, makes sage grouse vulnerable to ravens. George Wuerthner 

Fences also serve as “lookout” posts for avian predators like ravens.

Research has established that a minimum of 7 inches and ideally 10 inches of residual grass height should remain after the livestock has grazed an area to provide sufficient cover for grouse. These height limits are seldom met. Cattle consumption of grasses and other vegetation removes the hiding cover for sage grouse nests and chicks, exposing the bird to losses from ravens, coyotes, and other predators.

Cattle grazing has reduced vegetative cover and compacted soils, reducing the habitat for sage grouse. Photo George Wuerthner

Cattle also feed upon forbs (flowers) critical to sage grouse chicks. In addition, early in their life cycle, chicks utilize riparian areas. The riparian regions’ trampling and soil compaction have destroyed this critical habitat throughout the West.

The dense grass in this photo is cheatgrass which may look desireable to the average person. However, cheatgrass is an exotic annual that is highly flammable. Cheatgrass promotes wildfires that is burning up sagebrush and with it sage grouse habitat across the West. Photo George Wuerthner 

Cattle are a significant factor in the spread of cheatgrass, a highly flammable annual. The presence of cheatgrass favors wildfire. An increase in blazes poses a substantial threat to the survival of sagebrush habitat and thus grouse.

As the District Ranger noted in his decision notice, “Authorizing livestock on the Cameron Canyon and Summers Meadows may impact the use of the area by bi-state sage-grouse. Out of the 3,100 acres of range determined to be capable of supporting livestock in the Cameron Canyon and Summers Meadow Allotments, 2,704 acres, or 87 percent, of the capable acres is also bi-state sage-grouse habitat.”

Credit for this decision can be attributed to the due diligence of the Western Watersheds Project, Wilderness Watch, the Center for Biological Diversity, and David Risley, Acting District Ranger.

Forbs (wildflowers) are an important food source for sage grouse chicks. Photo George Wuerthner 

The only thing I found disturbing was how the conservation groups capitulated to the WOKE movement and advocated the Forest Service consult with the local Paiutes on Traditional Ecological Knowledge.

Sagebrush has no adaptation to frequent fires. Burning sagebrush destroys sage grouse habitat. Photo George Wuerthner 

In their comments to the Forest Service, the groups said a Bridgeport Paiute told them the old people used to burn the meadows to open up the sagebrush and create more grass.

Although ranchers would love to see more grass and less sagebrush, nothing could be detrimental to sage grouse than burning up sagebrush. Sagebrush has no adaptations to frequent fires.

It is not often that we get something to cheer about, but in this instance, the Forest Service is doing the right thing for all the right reasons by keeping these allotments closed to domestic livestock use. If you wanted to send a thank you to Acting District Ranger David Risley, his email is david.risley@usda.gov .

 

 
About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

2 Responses to Good News–Grazing Allotments to Remain Closed on Bridgeport Ranger District

  1. Skyler says:

    Does this mean they will just graze illegally without punishment?

  2. Isabel Cohen says:

    Thank you for this informative article by on sage grouse. I shall pass it along. I am very interested in protecting wildlife at any cost so please keep me informed.
    Isabel Cohen
    Issyco1@cox.net

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey

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