Sage Grouse “Collaborative Conservation Effort” is an On-Going Disaster

Sage grouse displaying tail feathers in the Grasshopper Watershed. Photo courtesy of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

The numbers don’t lie — and the sage grouse “collaborative conservation effort” is a total and on-going failure. There were 16 million Greater Sage Grouse before Europeans arrived and began the destruction of the “sagebrush sea” in the Great Plains. The iconic birds were down to 400,000 in 2015 when Obama’s Secretary of Interior, Sally Jewell, rejected listing them for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Today there are only 200,000 left, an astounding loss of half the remaining birds in less than a decade.

Yet, Biden’s Bureau of Land Management director, Tracy Stone-Manning, continues to deny the abject failure of the collaborators’ plan claiming: “Joint efforts to conserve the greater sage-grouse and its habitat led to the largest collaborative conservation effort in our history, and we are building on that work, together with our partners, to ensure the health of these lands and local economies into the future.”

No matter what election-year fiction Stone-Manning spreads about the great success of the collaborators’ plan, the reality is that sage grouse are staring extinction in the face as the Bureau of Land Management continues to cater to the cattle industry with on-going destruction of critical sage grouse habitat.

Between 1966 and 2015 sage grouse populations declined by 83%, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The 2016 State of North America’s Birds’ Watch List classified sage grouse as “at risk of extinction without significant conservation actions to reverse declines and threats.”

In Montana, one of the last stands for sage grouse, their populations continue to plummet. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks estimated there were about 51,087 sage grouse in 2023, a huge loss from the 2021 estimate of 70,287 sage grouse.

It’s dismaying that Stone-Manning thinks the BLM is conserving healthy sagebrush habitat when the agency continues to clearcut native sagebrush-pinon-juniper habitat and build water developments for cattle on the agency’s grazing allotments.

Sage-grouse in the Grasshopper Watershed. Photo: Courtesy of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

Environmental assessments have recently been issued for two BLM cattle watering projects in southwest Montana in the Grasshopper and Medicine Lodge watersheds — the area where Lewis and Clark first met Sacagawea’s Lemhi Shoshone people when they came through Montana in 1805.

Yet, in spite of Stone-Manning’s claims, there is no mention of  the sage grouse conservation plan in those environmental assessments. Nor was there any analysis as to how these additional water developments will impact sage grouse, a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

Despite BLM ignoring the issues, there are significant problems with building artificial water developments in sage grouse habitat. Cattle eat the vegetation sage grouse rely upon for hiding cover and to camouflage their nests from predators. 

As detailed in one of BLM’s own 2023 reports, artificial water developments for livestock contribute to widespread increases in the number of ravens, which eat sage grouse eggs and chicks. Research by Coates et al. 2016 found a 45.8% increase of ravens in areas where livestock were present — and that stock tanks and water troughs provide an important source of water for ravens, especially in semi-arid environments. 

The equation is clear: Ravens select areas near breeding locations of sage grouse because they hunt sage grouse eggs and chicks. As raven numbers increase, sage grouse nest survival decreases. When the BLM provides artificial water sources, the population of ravens increases, further diminishing reproduction of sage grouse. 

Stone-Manning needs a reality check instead of ignoring well-documented impacts to sage grouse survival. In the case of the Grasshopper and Medicine Lodge watersheds, the agency should be discouraging ravens in sage grouse habitat by removing water developments and cows from sage grouse mating and nesting areas.

The data is indisputable: Slogans, false claims of success, and plans that are obviously not working will not restore Greater Sage Grouse. Stone-Manning and the agency she directs need to acknowledge that failure, follow the law and fully analyze the impact of their on-going livestock projects, and actually protect sage grouse habitat, not just talk about it. 

These are the battles we face year in, year out and unfortunately, the destruction of sage grouse habitat has not stopped, nor even slowed, under the Biden administration. You can email director Tracy Stone-Manning and let her know the “collaborative conservation plan” is an abject failure. And please consider helping the Alliance for the Wild Rockies continue the fight to keep sage grouse and many other native species from going extinct.

Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.






  1. Wayne Tyson Avatar
    Wayne Tyson

    At the peak of the California condor controversy (over leaving the last 25-30 birds in the wild or a captive breeding program). I had an unrelated consulting contract with the major “conservation” organization that was trying to get a Bill passed to buy a (“huge”) fraction of their “habitat.” Thanks to a birds curator friend who was a specialist, I wrote two essays for major newspapers in favor of captive breeding after interviewing other condor/vulture specialists and spinning up for a month.

    I lost the contract. I let my membership lapse. The articles were widely reprinted in other publications. The captive breeding program won out.

    Beware of the yellow-bellied grantsuckers that are proliferating in positions of authority. They will stonewall you until hell freezes over.

    1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      Earth First! also opposed the California condor captive breeding program, because we didn’t believe that the people running it would actually do what they claimed they would do, and because we didn’t think it would work. We even held a protest against that program at the San Diego zoo, which was running it. Our position was that if the condors were going to die out, let them do so in the wild where they belong, not in cages or in zoos. We were thrilled to be wrong, as that program was a great success. Probably the only environmental issue on which I’ve been wrong in my entire life.

  2. Duane Short Avatar
    Duane Short

    Hyper-focus on core areas to the neglect of dispersed areas and the biological need for unfettered dispersal was the beginning of the end of proper sage grouse and other wildlife man•age•ment strategies.

    The evolutionary survival of many wild•life species heavily depends on the inherent adaptability of any given species’ dispersers.

    1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      I don’t get your point, but here are the relevant ecological facts:

      In order to be sustainable and healthy, the minimum acreage of an ecosystem is 50,000 acres. The larger the better of course. Cattle must be excluded, along with all other unnatural human activities like farming, roads, power lines, and any other industrial activities or construction.
      In order for species to survive, they need adequate healthy habitat. You can’t save a species or stop its decline if they have nowhere to live, so habitat is the most important thing here.
      In order for megafauna and other migrating species to be healthy, there must be wildlife corridors between intact and healthy ecosystems. Otherwise, those species inbreed and they will eventually die out because of that.
      What humans do to the natural world is NOT natural, and other species can’t be expected to adapt to that. Humans need to greatly lower our population, and to return to living naturally, even though doing those things are long-term goals. Anything less and we just keep killing and destroying the natural world and all the native species there.

  3. Ted Chu Avatar
    Ted Chu

    Much to agree with here but in fact you can have cows and sage-grouse but you cannot have sage-grouse or other sage obligate species in pinyon-juniper forests. Objecting to pinyon juniper control solely because it may benefit cows is throwing the baby out with the bathwater mentality. Done correctly pinyon juniper control can benefit sage-grouse and yes cows too. Because it might also benefit cows is not a valid reason to oppose it if helping sage-grouse is a priority.

    1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
      Jeff Hoffman

      Screw cattle. They are unnatural non-native species that do great ecosystem harm by their mere presence, especially in arid and semi-arid ecosystems like the western U.S. Of course the Bureau of Livestock & Mining couldn’t care less about that, because they work for the ranchers on issues like this. Who cares whether it’s possible to have cattle and sage grouse? The cattle need to be removed for other reasons, even if they could exist with sage grouse.

      1. Ted Chu Avatar
        Ted Chu

        I have written many times that I want all livestock, both feral and managed removed from our fragile arid public lands in favor of native species and ecosystem health. That said if sage-grouse is a priority cows and sage-grouse is better than no cows and no sage-grouse which is what you get in a pinyon-juniper forest. Realistically we are going to have cows on public land for a long time yet.

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Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. The Alliance's mission is to protect habitat for native species in the Northern Rockies.

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Mike Garrity