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New Federal Sage Grouse Protection Plan Ignores Threat from Ranching

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Male sage grouse struts in a cheatgrass field near Bodie | Photo: USFWS/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The Department of the Interior announced a new strategy Tuesday to protect habitat of the imperiled sage grouse, but that strategy essentially ignores what many conservationists fear is the main threat to the rare desert bird.

Interior's Integrated Rangeland Fire Management Strategy is intended to address threats to the grouse from the spread of invasive grasses that increase the frequency and severity of wildfires. Sage grouse rely on habitat made up of patches of sagebrush with open land between the shrubs; frequent wildfires disrupt that habitat by killing back the shrubs.

The Strategy, released as the result of a directive issued by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in January, will allow land management agencies to work together to manage the threat of wildfire on a landscape-wide level. But with a few minor exceptions, the Strategy fails to address the main reason flammable invasive grasses are spreading in sage grouse country in the first place: cattle grazing.

In her announcement of the release of the Strategy, Secretary Jewell lauded the move toward protecting the grouse from wildfire without regard to agency jurisdictional lines. "We now have a fully integrated Strategy among federal, state, tribal and community partners that provides a set of actions to take now and in the future to fight rangeland fires across the West," said Jewell. "This roadmap takes a comprehensive and scientific approach to protect against some of the most intense wildfires that are damaging the American West's productive rangelands and sagebrush landscapes."

The Strategy is the third and final document released under January's Secretarial Order, which is intended to give agencies a coordinated strategy to use during the 2015 fire season.

Critics of western rangeland policy have long cast the ranching industry as a major threat to the sage grouse, which is being considered for protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. (The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to protect California's sage grouse population in April.) Invasive grasses, including the dreaded and widespread cheatgrass, are part of the reason: cattle spread the grasses' seeds in their manure and by carrying them on their hides, and their hooves break up the sagebrush steppe's protective cryptobiotic soil crusts that would keep most grass seeds from germinating if left intact.

Cattle can also reduce competition for weeds like cheatgrass by preferentially eating native plants.

Fire isn't a newcomer to the sagebrush steppe lands the sage grouse calls home, but the invasive grasses that have arrived within the last century up the ante considerably. Where fires once burned infrequently and at low-intensity due to the abundant unvegetated spaces between shrubs, a steppe colonized by cheat or other grasses can burn hotter, and the continuous supply of fuel covering what had been bare crypto allows fires to spread much more widely. Sagebrush can regrow somewhat handily after a single low-intensity fire, but repeated blazes will eventually convert sagebrush steppe to annual grasslands.

That means that even if the grouse survive the fires, they may have no place to live or breed.

But aside from a brief mention of the fact that grazing can help spread invasive grasses, the Strategy released Tuesday by Interior discusses ranching only briefly, and in just one context: encouraging ranchers to conduct "vegetation treatments" in invasive grass problem areas. "Vegetation treatment" is a bit of rangeland jargon which essentially means "weeding," and can take the form of herbicide spraying, removing encroaching trees, using prescribed fire, or simply setting livestock out to eat the problem plants.

In fact, one of the Strategy's few mentions of livestock grazing at all is a suggestion that cattle might be set out to reduce "fine fuels" in areas that are critically important to the sage grouse. Unlike the weedy grasses, though, evidence that grazing actually works to reduce cheatgrass damage to sage grouse habitat is rather thin on the ground.

The grouse's potential listing under the Endangered Species Act is a serious hot-button issue in the intermountain West primarily because of the ranching issue, despite the Strategy's lack of mention of the topic. A scientifically valid approach to protecting both the grouse and its habitat would necessarily require strict limits to grazing in any habitat that's relatively free of invasive grasses, and that prospect frightens ranching interests.

Pressure from ranchers and their allies is largely credited with the USFWS' decision in April not to list California and Nevada's "bi-state population" of sage grouse as Threatened. Listing of that distinct population segment of the grouse, which lives in just eight counties in Eastern California and west-central Nevada, was also opposed by mining and development interests.

When the announcement to drop the bi-state grouse was announced, Secretary Jewell credited an initiative to protect the grouse through as-yet unimplemented voluntary conservation measures. Environmentalists were split in their reaction to the announcement, with some groups -- such as the Western Watersheds Project and Center for Biological Diversity -- saying the decision was prompted more by political expediency than real science. Other green groups more focused on reaching consensus with local business interests praised the decision.

Livestock grazing and the resulting invasive-grass-fueled fires aren't by any means the only threats to the grouse. Other perils for the unique bird include hardrock mining, off-road vehicle recreation, and transmission lines, which provide raptors and ravens with handy perches from which to scout for grouse and their nests.

All those threats must be addressed in a straightforward fashion if the grouse is to survive into the 22nd Century. But ameliorating the threat to the grouse posed by grass-fueled wildfires just isn't possible unless Interior takes the ranching bull by the horns.

Given the deep discounts federal lands ranchers pay for grazing permits compared to those ranchers whose livestock graze on private land, public lands ranching is one of the most thoroughly subsidized industries in the West. If we taxpayers are essentially going to pay ranchers to graze cattle on our land, those ranchers should at least be willing to come to the table to address ways that their profits harm our irreplaceable wildlife. Addressing wildfire's threat to sage grouse without holding ranching accountable is like trying to work on climate change without talking about fossil fuels. It just can't be done.

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