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New Zinke order directs greater effort on problems causing sage grouse declines


Ryan Zinke, Secretary of Interior, signed an order this week creating a special Sage Grouse Review Team to look at and make improvements to the 2015 Sage Grouse Plan and how it is implemented. Because the order has provisions that the agency confer and cooperate with state and local government on the economic impacts caused by the plan, it has been reviled by the crazed environmental community as a step back in sage grouse conservation. They are making wild claims that oil and gas leasing will soon cover the landscape and be the demise of sage grouse.

Two points need to be made: First, it IS the job of these Interior agencies to examine the impacts of their management efforts on local communities and states. Just because it has not done that since before Bill Clinton was in office, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t perform this clearly spelled-out mandate that was part of the legislation that created these agencies.

Second, the Zinke order calls for increased effort to stem the loss of sage brush habitat (on which sage grouse depend) by focusing on the single biggest one-two punch that is wiping out sage: fire and invasive grasses. This is a huge step forward in conserving sage habitats and the sage grouse with them.

Fire and non-native grasses are the two biggest threats to sage grouse in the Western states. Wildfire and these invasive plant species work hand-in-hand with each other to create the biggest single loss of sage habitat, and nothing else comes remotely close to matching those losses. While the environmental community whines and worries about oil and gas wells or poorly managed cattle ranching, they are fiddling with people management while the sage grouse’s Rome burns, literally.

Jim Jeffress, a retired Nevada Division of Wildlife biologist who is now president of the Idaho Wild Sheep Foundation, said he “wouldn’t be a bit surprised if 60 to 70 percent of Wyoming sage has been lost” already to fire and invasive grasses. (Wyoming sage is a type of sagebrush important to wildlife.)

Mike Pellant, a range scientist with the Idaho Bureau of Land Management state office, estimated that all sage and shrub habitat in the Great Basin has been reduced by more than 10 percent just since 1990.

“The issue continues to get worse,” said Pellant. He explained that cheat grass is the biggest problem. Sagebrush is not adapted to fire and recovers slowly after a burn, taking 30 years or more to return to pre-burn condition. Cheat grass reseeds immediately and grows rapidly, increasing its density, out-competing native grasses and sage. It also becomes great fuel for any future fires. Today, when wildfires start, they are hotter and grow bigger than they did historically. That is because of cheat grass.

Pellant said that when he started with the BLM in the 1980s, a fire was considered really big if it topped 100,000 acres. Today, there are five or six fires a year that size and bigger in sage habitat. Within the last three years, one fire was over 560,000 acres and another pair of huge fires burned together and charred over 1 million acres of sagebrush habitat. In hot fires that size it may take decades, if not centuries, just for sage seeds to reach many areas near the center of the burn. Then it has to compete with a thick carpet of established cheat grass, which increasingly is proving to be an impossible task.

The Zinke order is a step in not just protecting sage grouse, but drastically improving the future of the bird by addressing the biggest problem. Maybe he will also move to put people back in charge who want to get positive things done on the ground.

Biologist Jeffress thinks the loss of sage is at a crisis point. A decade ago, he said “there are some areas in the West that are flat going to lose their sagebrush. A total loss of this habitat.”

He sees it actually happening today. Jeffress uses an example of a burn in the 1960s, “and the site looks the same today as it did right after the fire – a homogeneous stand of cheat grass.” The loss of sage habitat is not just impacting sage grouse numbers, but it is affecting mule deer, pronghorn antelope, all gamebirds, and a huge community of small mammals and songbirds dependent on sage, according to Jeffress.

He suggests a three-pronged solution:

1. The public needs to recognize the incredible loss that is taking place so there is support for funding on fire suppression, research, and restoration. If we had lost 50 percent of any of our forests, there would be a massive restoration program in place, he said.

Part of the problem is that for the first 50 years or more of the last century, farmers, ranchers, and federal agencies were removing sagebrush as fast as they could. Jeffress said they are still battling the idea that sage is a wasteland and not good for anything. Long-time ranchers have learned the range was much better with sagebrush and native bunch grass than the big stretches of cheat grass that have replaced the sage. Cattle can utilize cheat grass for only a short window in the early spring before it dries up, while native bunch grasses provide grazing in the spring and throughout the summer and fall. While the battle is still uphill, more and more people recognize that cheat grass has little value for native wildlife.

(For you chukar hunters, yes, cheat grass is a great chukar forage, but Jeffress points out that one repeatedly-burned mountain in northern Nevada -- a mountain devoid of chukar because there is no longer cover for them -- has enough cheat grass to feed North American’s entire chukar population. “Enough is enough,” said Jeffress.)

2. Jeffress said the agencies and private ranchers need to work together on a fire break system that can stop the spread of massive fires. “Green breaks” that are cleared of sage and cheat grass fuel and planted with plants that stay green and don’t burn as well during the summer fires would go a long way toward keeping burn sizes more manageable, allowing for more restoration. It’s much easier to replant 1,000 acres than 100,000 acres.

3. Jeffress said there needs to be a concerted replanting program done with either another non-native -- kochia -- which reseeds quickly after a fire and grows knee high in a single season, or a genetically altered sage that recovers more quickly after burning. Both would effectively compete with cheat grass and restore some resemblance to a natural system and help salvage the wildlife community that depends on sage.

Jeffress said that kochia is extremely high in protein and all wildlife eats it, including sage grouse. It has been used along roads and firebreaks as green stripping and has spread in burn areas, providing some relief for native wildlife.

Pellant agrees with Jeffress, but he prefers the genetically modified, fire-tolerant sage idea. He said there were some species of sage that have these characteristics and what little genetic work has been done has shown promise in sagebrush species.

Pellant, however, acknowledges the biggest problem. There is a lot of negative baggage that comes with genetic modifications or planting non-native plants to combat other non-natives. The hard-core environmental community is saying “native or nothing and no GMOs.”

“I’d rather have half of something than all of nothing,” said Jeffress.

Pellant agrees, “We’d better think about the future and be proactive now.”

The problem is that today’s environmental lobby doesn’t really care about protecting and restoring the habitat and building sage grouse numbers, they use environmental laws to mandate how people live by restricting and destroying the human activities -- cattle grazing and oil and gas development -- that have much smaller impacts.

So, of course the radical environmentalists hate the Zinke order. He’s telling his agencies to address the real problems with sage grouse in his order and to accommodate human needs where possible. How novel.


[Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at or by phone at 909-887-3444.]

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