Guest Opinion

Mar 14, 2014
by WLJ

Influencing the decision on sage grouse and cattle

The ongoing debate concerning the possible ESA (Endangered Species Act) listing of sage grouse brings many different issues to mind, such as how do we, as a community, influence the decision so as to retain our property rights and in many cases the ability to continue in business? We can argue that the drive to have an endangered species listing for the sage grouse has nothing to do with the bird but is only a method to place millions of western acres, both public and private, under nonresident control. It will serve no purpose for us as a community to attempt to prove that someone wants complete control of our part of the world. I use the term community, as this is not just a cattle industry problem. If successful, this listing will completely change the way that those of us indigenous to the sagebrush desert will be able to conduct our lives. Make no mistake, to many in the op position, this is another battle in a war to once again remove the humans making their home in the open spaces of the western United States.

I believe that we should stick together, those creatures who actually live here. That means all of us, including the sage grouse. We indigenous humans are the native environmentalists. Who better to know the land and the creatures?

Who would have more affinity for the high desert landscape? Why have we allowed the debate to frame those of us who have lived here for generations, as people who pillage and plunder nature? Why would the opinion of someone who has chosen to live elsewhere carry more weight than the facts presented by those of us who the decision actually affects? To this end, we must come to the rescue of one of our own, the sage grouse. A listing of this bird will put more than just one of us in grave peril. The actions that are proposed will only serve to increase the major threats to this animal. We must continue to bring the debate back to what is actually best for the sage grouse and force the opposition to prove how their proposed actions will increase the number of birds by limiting the major threats. These threats are wildfire, predators and loss of habitat through development. We have, in the range cow, an ally that unknowingly fosters an environment conducive to sage grouse.

Cattle and sage grouse do not compete for the resources; rather the cow provides a positive benefit for the grouse each time she takes a bite of grass. She is:

Reducing the threat of wildfire by removing the fine fuel that carries the fires; Providing cow dung that fosters insects that sage grouse eat; Acting as the primary herbivore that removes the course grasses which allows the delicate regrowth that the grouse consumes; and She continues to provide the economic base that keeps the rancher on the land, both private and public.

If indeed the goal is to increase the number of sage grouse, the cow is the best tool available.

Wild fire is the number one threat to the condition of the range and specifically the sage grouse. Not only does fire kill the birds, it destroys the habitat by removing the sage brush and opening up thousands of acres to invasive plants. The government agencies have proven to be ineffective in the attempts to control this threat. In fact, the agencies have actually made many of the fires worse. Fire is natural and can have a positive effect on the environment but if the fine fuel levels are allowed to increase to unprecedented levels, given the current restrictions by which they are fought, a fire is uncontrollable. Eastern Oregon witnessed this two years ago when over 1 million acres burned. Well managed grazing on these lands can go a long way toward controlling wildfire. There are thousands of acres in the West that have no cattle on them and many millions of acres that have a 50 percent or more reduction in the amount of grazing over the last 40 years. That being said, the sage grouse numbers have declined in conjunction with the reduction of cattle allowed on public land.

The production of manure—while sounding like what we often get from Washington, DC—is important to provide a needed food source for the sage grouse. The cattle and the grouse end up using the same sources of water which places the grouse in contact with what the cow has left behind. Actual entomology aside, a cow pie attracts insects which attracts grouse. This is a plentiful food source during the dry times of the year.

All animals that eat grass prefer the young short grass in the spring or the regrowth later in the year. This includes cattle, deer, elk and sage grouse. If one listens to the current debate, they would assume that grouse only eat sagebrush leaves. This is not the case. They eat tiny forbs and regrowth. They also eat alfalfa leaves if given the chance. The cow is a primary grazer, meaning she can and will eat mature grass plants leaving them the regrow that season. This is a benefit to the rest of the system. I am not suggesting that it is a benefit to overgraze any piece of land even though possibly the sage grouse is the one animal that benefits from land that has been used too much.

Perhaps the most important benefit the cow provides is an economic reason for a human to manage the land. This manager not only works to maintain and improve the land; he or she limits non-agricultural land development because the private ranch lands remain open working landscapes. Remember that the sage grouse is in seven states, six of which have few impediments to development. With a rancher involved, BLM lands are managed by a businessman paying for the privilege to be on continuous fire watch, build and maintain water systems and control predators, among the many other management duties that have a positive impact. The change to the land both private and public would be dramatic without an active, competent manager. What must also be understood is that the indigenous human is not an intruder to our high desert environment, but has been an intricate part of the environment for thousands of years.

We do not want to fight this issue in federal court after the bird has been listed. We do not want to defend ourselves from the onslaught of injunctions and lawsuits aimed at limiting our ability to function as agricultural businesses, small towns or rural communities. I believe that our best hope lies with continuing to be the native environmental advocates for our home and those animals that we live with, which includes the sage grouse. We must provide the education, backed by actual science, which proves the listing will do the exact opposite of what it is designed to accomplish. An ESA listing of the sage grouse, while creating havoc in the rural West, will result in less sage grouse. Active management of the high desert by knowledgeable, competent, motivated, “native environmentalists” will provide an economic base for our rural communities and ensure that we can keep our beautiful, diverse, open West intact. —Kenny Bentz 3rd generation rancher, Crow Camp Ranch, Crane, OR