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Idaho Enterprise

Sage Grouse Research

Nov 16, 2023 02:23PM ● By Allison Eliason

For decades, special interest groups against cattle grazing on federal lands have capitalized on the declining population of the greater sage grouse.  As sage grouse numbers have steadily dropped, the obvious culprit was quickly assumed to be the cattle that cohabitate with sagebrush on Idaho’s rangelands.  Cattle ranchers and other rangeland managers knew these assumptions were false as they experienced first hand the positive relationship cattle and sage grouse had, but without the scientific data to back them up, their anecdotal knowledge held little weight.

    With greater opposition to rangeland cattle grazing on federal lands, Courtney Conway, Professor of Wildlife Studies at the University of Idaho was determined to find real answers regarding the cohabitation of cattle and sage grouse.  Conway, along with members of Idaho’s Fish and Game, Bureau of Land Management, range ecologists as well as ranchers, came together to scientifically study on a long term scale, the effects of grazing on sage grouse, beginning in 2012.

 Conway and his colleagues knew that the findings of their study would be monumental in future litigation and rangeland management.  For the ranchers and producers that rely on public land grazing, it could very well end their use if their findings demonstrated a negative impact on sage grouse populations.  With so much on the line, they were determined that their study should come away with clear, undisputable conclusions with data to support such conclusions.

Over the ten year period of the study, those involved worked to measure sage grouse nesting success, brood success and overall survivability.  They also tracked nest site locations, detailed information on the forages and vegetation as well as how the rangeland changed as it was grazed.  The hens were also tracked and monitored over the years with collars to observe their patterns and habits, and weighed to track their health.

After a decade of collecting data, it was finally time to sift through the numbers and information to see what conclusions could be drawn.  In truth, the findings weren’t all too surprising as it finally supported what the boots on the ground had been saying all along- cattle do not cause a threat to the survivability of sage grouse when they cohabitate on Idaho’s rangeland.  In fact, the study pointed out how cattle actually make the lands a healthier habitat for the birds.

Arthropods that live in the sagebrush ecosystem are the stable diet of sage grouse.  Through their research, Conway and his colleagues found that in the rangelands that cattle were turned out on were greater and more diverse populations of the very arthropods sage grouse fed on.  This played an especially important role for young birds as it helped them have a good diet as they were continuing to mature.

 The data demonstrated that cattle did not disturb the nests, as many had assumed, by tromping on the eggs.  Their presence played a part in keeping other predators from finding or gaining access to nests as easily if cattle were not there.  

These findings might not be new for ranchers or friends of the agriculture industry but it is certainly a win for them.  Having data to prove the experiences they are seeing between their cattle and the native sage grouse will give them vital leverage they need to help keep cattle on the range.

Information regarding Professor Conway’s research can be found at https://www.uidaho.edu/news/news-articles/news-releases/2023/102423-sagegrouse.

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