Billings Gazette Op-Ed: What’s good for grouse is good for cows

By WES MARTEL BRIAN RUTLEDGE — There’s a new saying in cattle country: What’s good for the bird is good for the herd.

In this case the bird is the greater sage-grouse, one of the most iconic and sacred symbols of the American West. Sage-grouse populations have plummeted in the last century as cattle grazing, urban development, and industrialization chewed up its native sage brush habitat.

Some people thought the answer to the bird’s plight should be listing it under the Endangered Species Act, which would have put tight restrictions on development and agriculture in areas where the bird lives. That possibility sparked fears of major economic losses across the sage-grouse’s habitat in parts of 11 states, including Montana.

Instead of resorting to using the law, this broad alliance including Native Americans, ranchers, energy companies, conservationists and government agencies decided to take matters into their own hands. They came together around their love of Western lands and wildlife and hammered out conservation solutions that are good for birds, local economies and – as it turns out – cattle.

Over the last five years federal and state plans have developed in 11 states, protecting sagebrush habitat across 173 million acres. That means no more than 5 percent development on 67 seven million acres of critical sage-grouse habitat.

So how is saving the sage grouse helping cattle?

It turns out that the same targeted, proactive investments in conservation on private agricultural lands that promote habitat creation also lead to healthier, more productive working ranches, farms and forests. They improve the quality of water and the resilience of working lands stressed by drought. These practices promote the healthy ecosystems needed for agricultural production to thrive, boosting America’s rural economies.

Some solutions are as simple as changing the way ranchers water their cattle. Under older systems, ranchers drove their cattle to water tanks that held water year-round. The continuous supply of water also attracted ravens which also feasted on sage-grouse eggs and chicks. Now partner ranchers allow their cattle to rotate across the landscape and drift to different water sources.

On the Wind River Reservation in western Wyoming, the tribal council is curbing off-road vehicles in sage brush areas during the bird’s mating and nesting season. The tribe also is combining new technologies and science to improve management of its oil and gas wells in sage brush areas. They are the kinds of solutions that could be used on tribal lands across Montana and other sage brush states.

This is just the kind of cooperation the Endangered Species Act was designed to encourage. It wasn’t intended to list everything under the sun; it was to motivate conservation before listing became necessary.

Our cooperative effort is off to a good start. But we need to engage even more Native American tribes, ranchers, energy companies and others to preserve the sage grouse and its sage brush habitat.

So what’s the big deal about protecting this chicken-sized bird famous for its exotic sunrise mating dances? The sage-grouse is an indicator species for more than 390 other bird, animal and wildlife species, not to mention plants and invertebrates. That means if something is going wrong for the greater sage grouse, all these others species are also at risk.

The sage-grouse and sage brush ecosystem also are especially important in Native American culture and beliefs. The ecosystem provides habitat for the plants, birds, animals and other life that nourishes, heals and protects. It is a resource to be cherished.

In the end, what’s good for the bird, is good for an entire ecosystem and the wildlife, people and economies that share it.

Wes Martel, of Mill Creek, Wyo., is a former Tribal Council member of the Eastern Shoshone Tribe. Brian Rutledge, of Livermore, Colo., is vice president and Central Flyway policy adviser at National Audubon Society.

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