Sage Grouse Thrive in Farm Havens

As they investigate the mysteries behind the surprisingly complex songs that starlings sing, biologists find—more mysteries A federal program that converts cropland to wildlife habitat is helping myriad species, including the declining sage grouse, but the program faces threats in Congress

04-01-2006 // Ken Olsen

WHEN HE BEGAN farming the dry, glacier-sculpted grasslands of eastern Washington a century ago, David Davis’s grandfather expected he would always flush greater sage grouse from his fields. Leks—areas where male sage grouse perform their elaborate mating dances—were common enough among the coulees, hummocks and gentle ridges of Douglas County that the Davis family did not attach special significance to one on their property.

The plow dramatically changed this picture of sage grouse paradise. The birds have dwindled steeply as nearly half the sagebrush-steppe habitat in North America has been converted to agricultural use. Strip-mining, oil and gas drilling, the proliferation of ranchettes and the use of fire and chemicals to eradicate sagebrush exacerbated the widespread and precipitous fall of the bird, says Ben Deeble, NWF’s sage grouse project coordinator. “As goes the sagebrush,” Deeble says, “so goes the sage grouse.”

There were an estimated 1 million greater sage grouse when European settlers arrived. Only about 250,000 survive in small groups scattered across 11 western states and two Canadian provinces. Davis and other Douglas County farmers slowly are reversing this decline, using a provision of the federal Farm Bill called the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The program encourages farmers to return highly erosive acreage to wildlife habitat. In exchange, the federal government reimburses landowners like Davis for income they lose by not raising crops in those fields. CRP also covers half the cost of replanting sagebrush and other wildlife-friendly vegetation. The result is a landscape that nurtures greater sage grouse as well as a variety of threatened and endangered wildlife, from prairie chickens and ferruginous hawks to San Joaquin kit foxes and blunt-nosed leopard lizards. Lands rejuvenated throughout the nation also provide corridors that connect remnants of native habitat.

Since CRP was created in 1985, Douglas County farmers have turned nearly 186,000 acres of wheat into sage grouse havens, thick with sagebrush, perennial grasses and other plants. They have stabilized the county’s greater sage grouse population—the most productive in North America—and bolstered dozens of other sagebrush-dependant species, says Mike Schroeder, biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “CRP land is extremely important, not only for sage grouse but burrowing owls, jackrabbits and other species on the edge of survival,” he says. “The program basically kept the Columbian sharp-tailed sage grouse from being added to the federal endangered species list.”

It also has given farmers an appreciation for the benefits of environmental stewardship. “A lot of this ground that went into CRP should never have been farmed in the first place,” Davis says. “The birds were disappearing until CRP got going.”

Davis’s success is being repeated in Oregon, Idaho and Montana, where greater sage grouse also are using CRP habitat. “The sage grouse has responded dramatically because sagebrush has recolonized the idle cropland,” Deeble says. “It’s where they take their nutrients, it’s where they take their shelter, and it’s where they reproduce. CRP has been the crux of grouse survival in some places.”

Douglas County, Deeble points out, “is one of the few places sage grouse are increasing in Washington state. It is a primary example of the way Farm Bill programs can be used not just to grow crops but to grow wildlife.”

Nationally, farmers have transformed 36 million acres of cropland into wildlife habitat during the past 20 years, an area equivalent to more than 16 Yellowstone National Parks. Such restorations explain why prairie ducks and ground-nesting songbirds are flourishing on the Northern Plains and eastern wild turkey and bobwhite quail are rebounding in the Southeast. “Our economy rewards people for doing the wrong things for the environment,” Deeble notes. “This is a program where we pay people for doing the right things for the environment.”

CRP keeps third- and fourth-generation farmers on the land and helps small farm towns survive, says Jim Davis, Davis’s neighbor and cousin as well as president of the Washington Farmer’s Union. It means farmers are using less fertilizer and herbicides.

The program has dramatically curtailed dust storms that cause fatal automobile accidents and close Douglas County highways. Stream sedimentation has declined, which is especially important considering 155 miles of the Columbia River—home to dwindling salmon—border the county. Flash flooding is far less of a problem for the county’s largest community.

Despite this success, the future for CRP is uncertain as the Farm Bill comes up for reauthorization this year amid ballooning federal deficits and competing demands from crop subsidies and other agricultural programs. Where farmers traditionally have received 10-year conservation-reserve contracts—important, considering the decades needed to reestablish sagebrush habitat—they could now be re-enrolled for as little as two years, depending upon what Congress decides. Meanwhile, the Bush administration is giving lower priority—and less funding—to conservation-reserve efforts in drier regions. The administration also plans to end a program that allowed Douglas County farmers to place more than 25 percent of county cropland in CRP. That alone would cut greater sage grouse habitat there by about 44,000 acres.

“We don’t want to put a plow to this kind of ground,” Jim Davis says, hiking through tawny grass and pungent sage that, after 20 years of effort, make his former wheat field indistinguishable from adjoining native pasture. “But if farmers lose their CRP payments, they will have to tear out the grass and sagebrush and plant crops in order to cover property taxes and other overhead. We are trying to protect something that has incredible economic value to us, but we also are trying to protect something that has incredible environmental value to everyone.”

Deeble warns that if CPR is drastically reduced, Douglas County will become another blank spot on the map for sage grouse—a trend that does not bode well for western species or for the West. “When the sage grouse are gone, these places are gone, too,” Deeble says.

Ken Olsen lives is eastern Washington.


Helping Sage Grouse
This spring, NWF will field more than 100 volunteers to count greater sage grouse in traditional breeding areas or leks in Montana, Wyoming, Nevada and Oregon as part of NWFs Adopt-A-Lek program. These citizen scientists will provide state and federal wildlife agencies much needed data about the status of sage grouse, says Ben Deeble, NWF’s greater sage grouse project coordinator. “It’s one of the only ways to verify if conservation practices for sage grouse are being effective,” Deeble says. NWF hopes to expand this effort, started in Montana in 2000, to other states and other species, Deeble says. For more information, go to www.nwf.org/sagegrouse.

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