After a century or two of obscurity, the sage grouse has been getting a lot of attention lately. It’s not just about sage grouse, but where it lives and what it presents: Montana’s healthy sagebrush habitats.
The taming of the West has been hard on this bird. Sage grouse have disappeared from much of their range as native sagebrush habitat has been converted to crop production, fragmented by energy development, and invasion of weeds like cheatgrass and encroachment of juniper has also diminished the quality of their habitat. Other challenges like predators, fence lines, and West Nile virus add to their woes.
Many Montanans take pride that we still have relatively healthy populations of sage grouse. Popular big game like mule deer and pronghorn likewise depend on sagebrush for forage, cover, and to hide their young from predators.
Conservation-minded ranchers understand that what is good for grouse is often also the best for the long-term health of a cattle herd. They know that healthy habitat helps conserve our soil and keeps our water clean, our streams healthy, and a variety wildlife populations robust.
Montanans are wise to learn from other states that have either lost, or are in the process of losing, many of their native birds. This includes our adjacent neighbors. Sage grouse have virtually vanished from Alberta and North Dakota and energy development in Wyoming is having huge impacts on sage grouse and other wildlife dependent on sagebrush habitats. Montanans have lots of opportunities to avoid these degradations and are doing so in many places.
Birds are good report cards or “indicator species” of what is going on in the larger web of life. Montanans strive to be good stewards of the land and do not want to have degradation and decreases in sage grouse or other native species dependent on the sagebrush ecosystem occur while on our watch.
We can maintain our sage grouse and avoid their listing under the Endangered Species Act, but only if we refuse to be complacent. No landowner, biologist, or hunter wants to see this listing happen.
Most scientists attribute the decline in sage grouse numbers to a number of factors, but the primary reason for their decline is habitat loss. Sage grouse need big, open spaces, and healthy sagebrush habitat. The current healthy and viable sage grouse populations in Montana attest to the ability of Montana ranchers and public land managers to work together to benefit both agricultural needs and the needs of wildlife.
Sage grouse are specialists, and when their sagebrush habitat is changed, their options are limited and the consequences more profound.
Ranchers can help
Montana’s ranchers have developed ways to survive in the harsh environment of Eastern Montana and they must be part of the solution for sage grouse. If the birds are pitted against ranchers, both will lose.
Montanans — and Americans as a whole — have a proud history of restoring our native wildlife like pronghorn and bighorn sheep. We brought them back, and we can do the same with sage grouse.
The protection and restoration of sage grouse can be just one more success story of wildlife conservation, public benefit, and honor of private land stewardship for economic benefit and ecosystem health for all of us.