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In Montana Wilds, An Unlikely Alliance To Save The Sage Grouse

As its name implies, the sage grouse lives in sagebrush country, the rolling hills of knee-high scrub that's the common backdrop in movie Westerns. Pristine sagebrush is disappearing, however, and so are the birds. Biologists want to protect the sage grouse, but without starting a 21st century range war over it. So they've undertaken a grand experiment in the American West, to keep the grouse happy, as well as cattle ranchers and the energy industry.

This won't be easy. It's a fussy kind of bird. Take, for example, the sage grouse lek.

A lek is a mating ritual. The males — chicken-size, brown and white with spiky tail feathers — have big air sacs on their chests. They look like they're wearing brassieres. They gather in groups and perform a song and dance to attract females.

In a near-pristine valley in southwestern Montana recently, I sneaked up on a lek in a valley of foot-high, yellow grass. The birds were wary but kept up their weird bobbing and chortling, occasionally spreading their wings and hopping. When a male extended a row of tail feathers, it looked a bit as though it was sporting a sideways mohawk.

A male sage grouse displays during a lek, or mating ritual, in Montana. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide within two years whether to add the bird to the endangered species list.
Stephen J. Krasemann / Science Source
Science Source
A male sage grouse displays during a lek, or mating ritual, in Montana. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide within two years whether to add the bird to the endangered species list.

Ecologist Nathan Korb found this lek. He works for The Nature Conservancy. He says the birds don't do this just anywhere. "Yeah, they're very picky. They're looking for flat bare places, where nothing gets in the way of showing off." And where potential predators ... like us ... are easy to spot. Eventually the birds decide they don't like us and fly off, though it might have been the big coyote we also spotted nearby that spooked them.

The thing that makes the sage grouse especially important out West right now is the federal government's pending review of its status. The Fish and Wildlife Service will decide within two years whether to add it to the formal list of endangered species. That worries ranchers who fear they won't be able to graze cattle near endangered birds. And oil and gas companies fear they won't be able to drill.

Everything out there eats sage grouse. They're like ice cream.

But, biologists argue, this isn't just about a bird. "Sage grouse is really the wild-land bird of the sagebrush steppe," says Tim Griffiths, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Sagebrush steppe is a huge part of the Western range, and the grouse is as much part of it as antelopes and cowboys. Griffiths says protecting the grouse also protects everything else on the land — "maintaining that habitat that all those critters and ranchers can continue to live on for generations to come."

Even with a restored sagebrush habitat, the sage grouse is a pretty vulnerable critter. "Everything out there eats sage grouse," says biologist David Naugle, a sage grouse expert at the University of Montana. "They're like ice cream." Hawks, eagles, even crows prey on the ground-dwelling birds, he says. And aside from predators, barbed wire fences are threats; grouse accidentally fly into them and die.

These birds need open land, says Naugle: "Vast, unbroken, intact rangeland, so that they can find enough secure places to make a living."

Naugle is the scientific adviser to the Sage Grouse Initiative. Started by the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, the program is governed by a consortium that includes the Nature Conservancy and several state wildlife agencies and universities. Its aim is to protect grouse now, so the federal government doesn't have to list the bird as endangered — a step that could start a long fight between landowners and the government.

The initiative pays ranchers not to develop land. It removes fences or marks them so grouse can see them. It cuts down invasive trees, like the juniper and Douglas firs — trees that not only push out sagebrush but give hawks and other predators an easy roost from which to spot and kill sage grouse.

You can see all this in play in southwestern Montana, in the Centennial Valley. It's a 60-mile-long valley that includes places like Nemesis Mountain and Hell Roaring Creek. Most visitors go to Yellowstone, east of here. But the grouse like it in this valley, and for good reason. "There's basin big sagebrush, says Kyle Cutting, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who lives here, too, even in winter, when most people abandon the place to the snowdrifts. "We have mountain big sagebrush," Cutting says. "We have three tip sagebrush." It's wetter than most other places around, which may explain why the valley is so rich in wildlife. Outside the valley, sage grouse habitat has been turned into ranches, farms and suburbs over the past century.

The Nature Conservancy's Korb lives here most of the year as well. He's an affable, energetic guy who sometimes runs through sagebrush just for kicks. He walks me through a field of the stuff, an endless plain of hip-high, pale green bushes.

But if you look closely, there's more than meets the eye. Korb runs his hand through the 6-inch-tall grass beneath the bushy plants. "This is the kind of place where sage grouse might nest," Korb says, "and this grass provides cover. ... If it's all grazed off, they're a lot more exposed to predators."

Sage grouse is probably the largest conservation experiment that's ever been conducted in the United States.

Maintaining the grass as well as the brush means getting the cooperation of ranchers like Bryan Ulring, who manages the J Bar L Ranch in the valley.

Ulring is a sturdy 6-footer in boots and vest who participates in the Sage Grouse Initiative by grazing his cattle differently — in tighter groups. Wild bison used to graze that way here for protection, Ulring explains. "They always had the presence of predators, be it wolves, or grizzly bears or Indians."

Tighter grazing allows other areas of grass more time to grow tall. And that's good for sage grouse. But to do it that way requires moving cattle around a lot more. And each new grazing site needs water.

I joined Ulring and a crew from the ranch who were putting in a water well before introducing a herd to the new paddock. Once they get the well in, they've got to fence it to keep the cattle in — with a wildlife-friendly fence that's portable so they can keep moving the herd. The Sage Grouse Initiative recommends an electric fence that uses just a single strand of wire. "All we have to do is contain the mother cows," says Ulring. "And so a sage grouse can hit this and not have any problem." Meanwhile, the ubiquitous pronghorn antelopes in the valley — locals call them prairie rockets — can safely run under the wire.

So far in Centennial, two of 10 ranchers in the valley are participating in the Sage Grouse Initiative. Ulring says many are waiting to see if he succeeds. The conservation program requires ranchers to "think outside the barbed wire box," he says.

Naugle says, across the West, the grouse protectors have signed up about 700 ranchers. They'll need a lot more. "[Protecting] sage grouse is probably the largest conservation experiment that's ever been conducted in the United States," Naugle says — bigger even than the effort to save the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest.

The effort to preserve owl habitat created a years-long battle between the timber industry on one side, and the government and environmentalists on the other. Naugle says the stakes are high here as well — rights to ranching, farming and oil and gas reserves. "At risk is our nation's energy security and the ability to provide food on these Western lands," he says. The Sage Grouse Initiative is one shot at avoiding a battle.

Editor's note: In our radio version heard on Morning Edition, some of the sounds of a sage grouse lek came from researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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