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The greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) is an icon of the western United States. Its conservation status has been steeped in controversy for many years, as various groups petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) eight times since 1999 to list the sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). However, in September 2015 the decades long efforts of several agencies and private landowners to reach agreement on habitat management avoided the need for FWS to list the sage-grouse under the ESA. But the ESA decisions are not over. The FWS will reevaluate sage-grouse status by 2021.
To conserve sage-grouse and help prevent a future ESA listing, SCI Foundation joined a collaborative partnership between Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) and the University of Montana (UMT) to assess the impacts of grazing to the sagebrush ecosystem in central Montana. Livestock grazing is often assumed to have only has negative impacts on the sagebrush ecosystem, and should be reduced or eliminated to conserve species like sage-grouse. Now in year five of ten, the findings from this research will help FWPs and other agencies manage sage-grouse and grazing in sagebrush habitats. The project will also produce a sagebrush habitat assessment tool to aid private landowners and other agencies.
Maintaining working ranches rather than eliminated grazing entirely is a forward-thinking approach to sage-grouse conservation. It keeps ranches intact, conserving large swaths of habitat needed by sage-grouse. The Sage-Grouse Initiative (SGI) created by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) started evaluating grazing systems as part of NRCS’s efforts to improve conservation for sage-grouse and avoid an ESA listing. NRCS now provides incentives for landowners to implement known sage-grouse friendly grazing systems to discourage conversion of sagebrush rangelands to farmlands.
A variety of other wildlife species also benefit from efforts to sustain sage-grouse populations. Sagebrush ecosystems provide important habitat for songbirds, elk, mule deer, pronghorn and many other species. Scientists have identified more than 600 species of conservation concern that depend on sagebrush ecosystems.
We are still uncertain about the direct impacts of grazing management on sage-grouse, sagebrush systems, and communities associated with sagebrush systems. By continuing to study the effects of livestock grazing on sage-grouse, SCI Foundation and our partners will help determine how to use livestock grazing as management tool to maintain or enhance current sage-grouse populations and sagebrush ecosystems. Developing best practices for livestock grazing in sage-grouse habitat that maintain rangeland health as well as wildlife habitat will provide the best option to encourage maintenance and sustainable use of sage-grouse populations.
In the long term, finding common sense solutions that benefit all stakeholders will be the best hope for conserving sage-grouse, making an ESA listing unnecessary.