In their guest opinion Wednesday, Owyhee County commissioners perpetuated a number of myths about wildfire, sage grouse and livestock grazing.
Large fires are driven by climate/weather, not fuels. While fuels can influence blazes under moderate conditions, under extreme weather of drought, high temperatures, low humidity and most importantly high winds fires will race across stubble no higher than a golf course putting green. Plus grazing grasses so short that it is sufficient to make any difference in a fire as suggested by the commissioners has all kinds of other collateral damage, including to sage grouse, which the commissioners used as an excuse for more grazing.
Livestock affect sage grouse at every step of their life history.
Although sage grouse depend on sage brush for food, particularly in winter, they also consume forbs (flowers), insects and perhaps even grasses at other times. In summer months forbs can make up to 40 percent of the adult diet. Since cattle also eat these same plants, in many areas cattle are consuming the food that might otherwise sustain sage grouse.
In drought years when cattle consume the bulk of all forage, grouse will simply forgo breeding due to inadequate nutrition.
Sage grouse require good grass/forb cover under or near sage grouse as hiding cover for nesting habitat to avoid predators. Grazing removes a lot of that cover, making hens vulnerable to predation.
Since female grouse must leave the nest periodically to feed, it’s critical for the nest and eggs to have enough grass cover to moderate the nest environment against excessive heat and/or cold. Again livestock grazing often reduces this critical cover component.
After the chicks hatch, they feed mostly on insects and flowers in wet meadows and riparian areas. Flowers constitute up to 50 percent of their diet up to 11 weeks. Insects are also important and may be as much as 75 percent of their diet in the first couple of weeks. Livestock grazing has destroyed more riparian habitat and wet meadows than any other activity.
One of the linear barriers to sage grouse movement, as well as habitat loss throughout sage grouse habitat, is fences. A number of studies have documented to 30 percent mortality or more from fence collision. Fences also provide perches for avian predators (i.e. golden eagles, hawks, ravens, etc.) that survey the surrounding terrain for sage grouse.
Because sage grouse recognize that perches are a predator trap, some studies have shown that grouse avoid fences for up to a half mile on either side of the fence, resulting in a huge loss of potential habitat.
One of the threats to sage grouse are range fires burning through sagebrush. Wildfires are a natural occurrence and natural process in sagebrush habitat.
However, the fire frequency has been greatly accelerated due to the widespread establishment of cheatgrass in the sage brush steppe.
What factor is more responsible for cheatgrass invasion than any other? Livestock. Cattle hooves trample biocrusts. Biocrusts grow on the soil surface in between the native grasses and sage brush. These soil crusts prevent the seeds of cheatgrass from getting established in the soil.
The best way to reduce the spread of cheatgrass is to eliminate livestock. Without such a move, cheatgrass will continue to spread across the West.
Another way that livestock has impacted sage grouse has to do with water troughs. In many of the drier parts of the West, ranchers have put out stock tanks to provide water.
Stock tanks are good breeding habitat for mosquitoes. Mosquitoes carry West Nile Virus, which kills sage grouse. In some populations, as much as 29 percent of the birds have died from the infection.
When one views the cumulative impact of livestock production on sage grouse ecology, it is clear that livestock are easily the greatest factor in sage grouse decline across the West, as well as the major factor in the spread of cheatgrass, hence large rangeland fires.
* George Wuerthner is an ecologist, former BLM botanist/biologist, who has written 38 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He also wrote portions of the original sage grouse petition to list the bird under the ESA.