The Herd, The Bird and The Scientist

Cows grazing in a sagebrush field with snow on the mountains behind

The sagebrush-dominated landscapes of the Great Basin are not only scenic, they are also working lands that support a vibrant ranching economy. Today’s ranchers carry on a time-honored tradition of raising livestock and, as in past generations, grazing their cattle on both public and private lands. They know that maintaining healthy range conditions are essential, not only for providing forage but also for conserving native fish, plants and wildlife. Balancing the needs of production and protection is key to success in the ranching way of life. 

With changes in rangeland vegetation and fire cycles taking place across the region, both ranchers and natural resource managers are asking: How can livestock and wildlife both thrive on the range? What, if any, changes might be needed in current grazing practices? Under what conditions does grazing actually improve habitats for wildlife?

The Great Basin Landscape Conservation Cooperative, or LCC, is working to help answer these questions. We know and respect that the sagebrush ecosystem is a working landscape. We understand that to conserve this land means to maintain grazing while also supporting the Great Basin’s ecology. 

“The Great Basin LCC strives to help partners create a landscape that supports both people and nature now and in the future,” said Rick Kearney, Coordinator for the Great Basin LCC. “Keeping these working lands working can be a challenge, but we are confident that a better understanding of grazing’s effects on range conditions will help to support conservation efforts.”

To help inform that understanding, the Great Basin LCC has supported two teams of researchers to examine the connections between grazing and native bird species such as the greater sage-grouse. 

In 2014, the Great Basin LCC began supporting a project led by Dr. James Sedinger to examine the effects of cattle and feral horse grazing on greater sage-grouse habitats and populations. The project looks at locations with no grazing or feral horse activity, areas with only feral horse activity, and areas with both grazing and feral horse activity. The project team uses historical sage-grouse data collected from Hart Mountain before and after livestock were removed in the early 1990s, historical data from Sheldon before the increasing number of feral horses in the mid-2000s and new data that they are collecting across the Hart-Sheldon region. 

To date, this project has radio-collared more than 500 sage-grouse, and when combined with historic data, the project will be one of the largest datasets ever collected for this species.

Dr. Sedinger’s preliminary results show that areas with a high concentration of grazing lead to lower rates of chick survival, nest success and overall adult survival of greater sage-grouse. Sage-grouse nests are more successful when they have cover from taller grasses and sagebrush. In addition, chicks are more likely to survive in areas with higher sagebrush cover, likely due to nearby available food sources and protection from predators. 

Together, the team’s observations suggest that improperly managed grazing, either by feral horses or livestock, may indirectly affect sage-grouse populations. The researchers continue to map livestock and feral horse habitat use and compare it to the habitat use of sage-grouse. The results will identify areas of concern, identify key life history stages of sage-grouse to target for management, and guide future conservation actions.

In 2016, the Great Basin LCC and other funding partners, supported a project led by Dr. Courtney Conway. This second project is examining the relationship between cattle grazing and bird populations over a ten-year period. Using a rigorous study design that tests four different grazing regimes (including no grazing) across 19 pastures in five different areas in Idaho, the team is documenting the effects of different grazing methods on populations of greater sage-grouse, sage-grouse habitat characteristics, insect and native grass abundance, and the abundance of other bird species. 

This extensive research effort includes nine different organizations and a crew of 25 field technicians working in partnership with local ranchers. The team monitors nearly 200 sage-grouse hens and 120 nests each year. Dr. Conway noted that the team has taken over 100,000 grass measurements at 482 vegetation plots, and conducted almost 1,800 point-count surveys for other bird species. 

Preliminary results from this study suggest that nests in grazed pastures had higher nesting success rates than those in areas of no grazing. The results appear mixed for other bird species, with the vesper sparrow and sage thrasher being more abundant in ungrazed pastures than grazed ones, while the horned lark is less abundant in ungrazed pastures. 

These early findings challenge many preconceptions about the impact of grazing and suggest the relationship may be more nuanced. As the study continues, the results can help inform management and grazing policy decisions, a goal of researchers, managers and ranchers alike.  

“[The ranchers we work with] want to feel like science, good science, and objective science is driving grazing policy on public lands and not people’s opinions,” says Dr. Conway. 

By supporting these projects, the Great Basin LCC is helping develop that good science to benefit everyone’s understanding of how grazing affects our sagebrush landscapes. The two projects build off one another and are providing data to support better land management decisions for resource managers and ranchers. Science-driven management paired with public outreach can lead to solutions that benefit both wildlife and the herd. 

“Ranching is an important part of our economy and our culture”, said Kearney, “We’re working to make sure that it continues to thrive.” 

Want to learn more? Read about Dr. Sedinger’s project and Dr. Conway’s project through our project pages. You can also watch a recent webinar presentation by Dr. Conway and Paul Makela about their project.