By Shawn Perich
The challenges of wildlife conservation on the Great Plains were featured in the Nov.-Dec. 2013 issue of Montana Outdoors, the official magazine of the Montana Dept. of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. One story reported how wildlife biologists are working with a wide range of partners to prevent an iconic bird, the sage-grouse, from being listed as threatened or endangered by the federal government. Another, more of an essay, explored the idea of restoring bison to the Montana landscape. Both stories struck a chord of hope that is often absent from conservation today.
Sage-grouse, the largest members of the grouse clan, thrive in a habitat type that once covered much of the West–sagebrush-covered short grass prairie. The birds now occupy about half of their historic range. Population counts have dropped by 50 percent or more in that last 40 years.
The best sage-grouse numbers are found in Montana and Wyoming, where an abundance of sagebrush habitat remains. But based on habitat losses in other western states, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined the sage-grouse “warranted” endangered or threatened species protection in 2010. Because there is a backlog of “warranted” species, a final determination hasn’t been made on sage-grouse. The USFWS is under a federal court order to do so by fall 2015.
If sage-grouse are listed as threatened or endangered, a recovery plan will almost certainly contain restrictions on land use. For this reason, it’s in the best interest of disparate parties from conservation organizations to oil companies to develop voluntary land use strategies to protect sage brush habitat. The primary goal is to retain cattle ranching as the primary use of the landscape. Farm bill funding has been used as cost share to help ranchers develop the fencing and water sources necessary to improve grazing practices for the benefit of sage-grouse habitat.
Threats to that habitat include the conversion to cropland for wheat or corn, energy development suburban expansion. Agricultural conversion and suburbia annihilate habitat, but energy development projects may be designed to lessen the detrimental effects on habitat. The challenge is finding ways to allow gas and oil development to occur while protecting the wide open spaces age-grouse require.
If there is room enough for sage-grouse, likely there is ample habitat for most of the native wildlife of the Great Plains. Pronghorn, mule deer and a host of other species need sage brush and open spaces to thrive. Protecting sage brush habitat may even allow another native species, the bison, to return.
Reprinted from Outdoor Life magazine was an essay by a writer in Glasgow, Montana regarding the possibility of restoring bison to the plains. This is not a far-fetched idea, especially when you consider the successful restoration of the gray wolf and grizzly bear. Interest in doing so exists among conservation groups, tribes and hunters. Large land areas, including the over one-million-acre Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and Indian reservations offer suitable and expansive habitat for bison reintroduction.
Ranchers are less than thrilled about the idea. Cattle operations also require expansive areas, because forage is limited. Ranchers worry that bison will compete with cattle for grass, especially during times of drought. They worry, too, that a bison reintroduction would affect grazing allocations on public lands.
Then there is the risk bison may transmit a disease to cattle called brucellosis, which causes cows to abort calves. Just how great of a risk this may be depends on whether you talk to wildlife biologists, who say it is low, or the cattle industry, which uses the threat of brucellosis as a tool to prevent the expansion of existing bison herds beyond their present stronghold in Yellowstone National Park.
Currently, any effort to transfer bison from one location to another would involve extensive brucellosis testing. Wildlife advocates are also concerned about a provision currently tucked into the upcoming Farm Bill that will provide federal funding for the vaccination of free-ranging bison and elk. Conservationists worry the provision could be a huge setback to wildlife management, not to mention a being bass-ackwards approach to disease control. As one wildlife advocate said in an email, “I vaccinate my dog for rabies protection, not the skunks.”
Bison reintroduction will be an ongoing issue for the foreseeable future, because wildlife managers are trying to find new homes for surplus animals from Yellowstone National Park. In 2010, about 80 Yellowstone bison were moved to a private ranch owned by media mogul Ted Turner for five years of brucellosis testing. If the tests remain negative, Montana will receive an estimated 150 bison in 2015, which will need a new home. That home may be public lands or an Indian reservation. The state has made it abundantly clear that any bison relocation will include lots of advance public comment and planning.
It’s undoubtedly too soon to begin planning for your Montana bison hunt. But hunting likely will have a central role in any bison management plan, because controlling herds to prevent conflicts with agriculture and livestock will be necessary. If the stars and planets align to allow bison reintroduction to move forward, such a hunt might be possible in the not-so-distant future.
As for sage-grouse, whether or not they are listed as threatened or endangered has little to do with their future as a game bird. Aside from local hunters, wing-shooters seem to treat the bird as a novelty, probably because they are found in out-of-the-way places and aren’t considered good to eat. Still, if sage-grouse remain abundant enough to allow for a hunting season, this is an indication that the West still contains healthy sage brush habitat. More importantly, if the Great Plains remains big enough for sage-grouse and, perhaps, for buffalo to roam, then it will likely continue to provide quality hunting for mule deer, pronghorn and other game species.