feature By: Jim Matthews | June, 17
The loss of sage habitat has already cut the sage grouse population by around 15 percent, according to Shawn Espinoza, a wildlife biologist with the Nevada Division of Wildlife. While the big grouse depend on sage for food and cover, chukar, Hungarian partridge, Columbian sharp-tailed grouse and valley quail also rely on sage for protection from predators and as nesting cover. All upland bird species are negatively impacted by the loss of sage.
Wildfires and an invasive grass called cheat grass are the one-two punch driving the decline in sagebrush. The fires, which are increasing in size and intensity, now convert vast areas of sage and scrub into permanent grasslands, consisting of cheat grass and few other species. Cheat grass fuels those fires and has expanded its range and density with each burn, increasing the fire risk. It has become a vicious cycle.
A recent U.S. Geological paper examining the relationship between sage grouse and fires in sagebrush habitat projected that more than 50 percent of the sage grouse population is likely to disappear in the Great Basin over the next 25 years if the cycle isn’t broken or habitat restoration isn’t accelerated.
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 (big) sage has been lost” already in the Great Basin.
Mike Pellant, a range scientist with the Idaho Bureau of Land Management (BLM) 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 preburn condition. Cheat grass reseeds immediately and grows rapidly, increasing its density, outcompeting 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 a year that size and bigger. One recent fire was over 560,000 acres, and another pair of huge fires burned together and charred over one million acres of sagebrush habitat. In hot fires of that size, it might take decades just for sage seeds to reach many areas near the center of the burn. Then it has to compete with a thick carpet of already established cheat grass, which increasingly is proving to be an impossible task.
Jeffress tells the story of comparing data from a range site surveyed in the 1960s when cheat grass was first starting to appear in the region. The survey showed around 50 cheat grass plants across the transect. Forty years later the same transect turned up over 2,000 cheat grass plants. Many areas now have 1,000 plants per square meter – and almost nothing else is growing in that piece of ground.
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.”
That has already happened. 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 only impacting sage grouse numbers, but it is also affecting mule deer, pronghorn antelope, all game birds and a huge community of small mammals and songbirds dependent on sage, according to Jeffress.
He suggests a three-pronged solution.
The first step is education so the public recognizes the incredible loss that is taking place so there is support for funding on research and restoration. If we had lost 50 percent of any of our forests, there would be a massive restoration program in place, he suggests.
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. Longtime 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 use 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. Yes, cheat grass is a popular chukar forage, but Jeffress points out that one repeatedly burned mountain in northern Nevada (and devoid of chukar because there is no cover for them) has enough cheat grass to feed North America’s entire chukar population. “Enough is enough,” said Jeffress.
Second, Jeffress said the agencies and private ranchers need to work together on a firebreak 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.
Third, Jeffress said there needs to be a concerted replanting program done with either another nonnative – kochia – which reseeds quickly after a fire and grows knee-high in a single season or 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 Great Basin species. Pellant, however, acknowledges there is a lot of negative baggage that comes with genetic modifications. 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 says, “We’d better think about the future and be proactive now.”
The biologists and scientists who have worked in sagebrush habitat across the Great Basin – from its northern end in southern Idaho and eastern Oregon, east to western Utah, west to the steppe of the Sierra Nevada in California and to the south where the Great Basin slowly merges with the hotter, dryer Mojave Desert in southern Nevada and California – all fear that the sagebrush and its associated wildlife are a threatened community.
If there is good news in the Great Basin, it is simply that vast areas of excellent sage and scrub habitat still exist, as anyone who hunted chukar or Hungarian partridge this past season will attest.
Espinoza, who is also an avid bird hunter, said the 2015-16 season was “far better than the last three years. I can tell you it was my best season since 2006.”
Nevada annually completes a helicopter chukar survey and reports the data by mountain range and number of birds seen per square mile. While the 2015 overall statewide average was similar to 2014, both counts being in the mid-50s, the highest averages for the state were recorded in 1999 at 87 chukars per square mile and 2011 at 82. The area with the highest counts in 2015 was the Pine Forest Range with 107 birds per square mile reported. But the Pine Forest area typically has among the highest counts in the state, dropping below 100 birds per mile only three times since 2001 and peaking at 195 in 2009. The highest number of chukars ever counted was in the Jackson Range in 1999 when 258 chukars per mile were counted during the surveys.
Espinoza was expecting an even better year for chukar in 2016 because of a very wet El Niño winter and good numbers of holdover birds. Production was likely to be exceptional, and that forecast applied to all of the Great Basin. Find good bird habitat and you will find birds – maybe an epic number of birds.
If you regularly travel to this part of the world to hunt, Espinoza and Jeffress said not to be discouraged if you find your favorite chukar or Hungarian spots burned in the past year. Usually, very few birds are killed in fires, most burns occurring long after the birds are off the nest and when chicks are old enough to fly. The key is to focus on the burn edges, especially for the first year after a fire. Birds from the burned areas become concentrated in the pockets of good habitat adjacent to their old homes. These areas hold more birds than normal, thanks to displacement by the fire. The other things to look for in your field scouting are places where the fire might have skipped over a big patch of sage. Those places can often hold great concentrations of birds.
“The way things are looking, I think we’ll see expanded chukar populations around Nevada, especially in areas that have been depressed by drought,” said Espinoza.