Sagebrush Day 5

Invasive Species, Wildfire & Cattle

Day five began with a visit to Idaho's Jim Sage Mountains, the site of an ambitious juniper removal project. Over the last 150 years, the suppression of wildfire allowed conifers like juniper to spread into sagebrush habitat, where the trees use tons of water, outcompete sagebrush and native grasses, and provide a potential perch for birds of prey – something sage grouse studiously avoid.  But the grouse is now gaining ground as multiple agencies and groups work to remove the trees. During this day, the group heard from Pheasants Forever, the Sage Grouse Initiative, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the BLM, and area ranchers.

En route to the next stop, the busload of journalists also heard from Jack Connelly.  Perhaps no one has a better handle on sage grouse restoration efforts in Idaho and beyond than Connelly, a scientist who has published prolifically on the bird and is credited with helping prompt nationwide conservation efforts. Connelly has been skeptical, though, of the current federal plan, saying there’s too much “wishful thinking” in some areas and contending that working with ranchers will be the key to protecting grouse.

Out in the Minidoka Desert (where we pushed the bus to its limits by asking it to drive for miles and miles down a dusty dirt two-track road), we learned that wildfire is especially devastating to sagebrush, scouring the land often beyond recovery. As fire gets more common and more intense out West, resource managers are continually challenged as they try to respond to potentially devastating blazes. The group also learned about the role invasive cheatgrass plays in fanning the flames, and fueling an aggressive cycle that edges out native plants.

The day wrapped up in Jackpot, Nevada, with a conversation with the Western Watersheds Project about the place of cattle in the sagebrush ecosystem.  While many agencies, non-profits and landowners believe sage grouse can thrive in a “working” Western landscape, some argue that only protection under the Endangered Species Act will do. The Western Watersheds Project is one such group, filing lawsuits to get grouse listed and taking aim primarily at one of the West’s oldest human activities – livestock grazing.