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What's Good for Grouse Is Good for the Wrangler

Cattlemen in Nevada are working to bolster bird habitat not because they have to, but because they see it as key to their industry's future.

November 06, 2005|Sandra Chereb | Associated Press Writer

SMITH CREEK RANCH, Nev. — Sage grouse feed in a meadow at dawn, unperturbed as three young wranglers saddle their mounts nearby and head through the sagebrush for the high country of central Nevada, where cattle graze in the Desatoya Range.

For some, the notion that cattle and a bird that just escaped listing under the Endangered Species Act can share the same Western landscape and thrive is a contradiction.

At Smith Creek Ranch, manager Duane Coombs wants to prove otherwise -- and, in so doing, protect a livelihood.

"We can do some things to enhance sage grouse populations so we have something here for our children in the future," he said.

Biologists and conservationists are welcome at the sprawling ranch, where a trip to the mailbox is 15 miles each way on a dirt road. Efforts to help the grouse go hand in hand here with managing cows.

Many environmental groups blame livestock grazing for the bird's population decline over the last four decades. And though others blame development, predators, hunting and climate changes, many ranchers equate sage grouse and environmentalists as enemies to a way of life.

"I know there's a faction that would love to see us off the public land," Coombs said. "What seems frustrating, if it's truly about the bird ... the rancher is one of the best tools they've got in their toolbox."

Loss of habitat is the biggest threat to the large game bird observed by explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in 1805. Urban sprawl, highway traffic, communication towers, oil and gas exploration, off-road vehicles, wild horses, fences -- all disrupt the bird's breeding instincts, degrade its habitat or provide lookout perches for its predators. Drought, disease, wildfires and invasive weeds also take a toll.

"Livestock grazing is one of the easiest to attack," said San Stiver, a sage grouse expert and former biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife. "But on the flip side, science doesn't necessarily back up anyone's position, pro or con."

The government estimates that as many as 16 million sage grouse inhabited the West in the early 1800s. Populations, particularly in the last 40 years, have dropped dramatically. Some reports estimate that 200,000 or so may remain on an estimated 770,000 square miles in 11 states -- roughly half the bird's historical range.

For years environmentalists have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the bird as endangered. In January, the agency denied the request, saying conservation efforts among local, state, federal and private entities would work better.

But the plight of sage grouse remains a strong influence on the Western landscape. This summer, a federal judge, ruling in a lawsuit filed by the Western Watershed Project, ordered thousands of cattle removed from nearly 1 million acres in southern Idaho. The judge said the U.S. Bureau of Land Management violated regulations when it authorized increased grazing without adequately determining the effect on grouse habitat.

Katie Fite, of the Idaho-based environmental group, said ranchers weren't meeting government recommendations for protecting sage grouse and sagebrush habitat.

"What we're seeing is resistance to having an accountability layer out there," she said.

Ray Hendrix, whose family owns Smith Creek Ranch, bristles at categoric blame.

"There's always a bad apple, the ones who don't do a good job. We all get accused," he said.

"When the range is in good shape, everything benefits. You're not going to be there 50 years from now if you're not going to take care of the country."

Preston Wright, president of the Nevada Cattlemen's Assn., doesn't think grazing should be blamed for what has happened to the sage grouse.

"I think there's something bigger going on than just too many cows," he said. "Having said that, I'd say basically all the ranchers nowadays are making changes to their grazing practices in order to improve certain habitat and environmental conditions.

"And it's necessary in many cases. It's something we've learned, and we've got to come around."

Coombs, a third-generation rancher who holds a degree in range science from Utah State University, said most recommendations in government conservation plans made sense for livestock, sage grouse and other wildlife.

"Good sage grouse habitat is good cow country," he said.

On a late summer day, Coombs provided a tour of the 250,000-acre spread, where a vast valley of high desert and dry lake beds is a pedestal for towering mountain peaks. Most of the ranch is on public land managed by the BLM, with about 3,000 acres on private, deeded land. The operation handles roughly 900 head of cattle.

In the foothills, Coombs showed off Porter Canyon, where youth groups, volunteers and others have fenced off a spring and shored up stream beds to try to revitalize a choked meadow.

"We want to get the hydrology to come back, get some control over what's happening there," he said.

Pinyon and juniper trees are being removed to try to foster sagebrush growth.

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