Human suppression of fire has resulted in “conifer encroachment”, a term rangeland managers use to refer to the growth of conifers in sagebrush landscapes where trees would not typically grow. If as little as 4 percent of the sagebrush landscape is checker-boarded by conifers, sage-grouse will avoid treed areas to escape predation from ravens and birds of prey.
As much as 60,000 acres of sage-grouse habitat are affected by conifer encroachment. While it may seem counter intuitive to cut down trees, removing conifers is one of the most efficient ways to improve habitat, says USU Extension Wildlife Specialist, Terry Messmer.
“The biggest thing is habitat. When you look at conifers encroaching into sagebrush habitat, that’s some of that low hanging fruit. You can go in, you can remove that, and immediately you can turn it into sage-grouse habitat. We’ve actually had sage-grouse that were following the machines and as soon as the conifers were removed they initiated nest in those areas.”
Since 2010 the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has been coordinating the Sage Grouse Initiative, a group of stakeholders with the goal of increasing sage-grouse habitat in eleven states with grouse populations. It is important to monitor these populations because they serve as an indicator of sagebrush ecosystem health. As Messmer points out,
“There are about 350 species that are considered sagebrush obligates. These species require sagebrush at some point in their lifecycle to survive, but of those, there’s only one species that will use sagebrush as its sole source of food in the winter, and that’s sage-grouse. From that standpoint of their dependence on the sagebrush ecosystem they are considered to be a keystone species, that how sage-grouse goes gives an indicator of how the system is going. If we lose sagebrush, we will lose sage-grouse.”
At one point the sage-grouse population numbered in the millions, but it’s estimated there are now less than 500,000 throughout their range. Through cooperative efforts of state and federal agencies, as well as private landowners, 500,000 acres of conifers have been removed in Utah, and 1 million acres across the intermountain west. With continued improvement and maintenance of sagebrush habitat, grouse populations will improve. Messmer says,
“Our research shows that, if you remove it, they will come.”