Cattle Trample Sage Grouse Recovery Prospects
New Grazing Data Center Documents Widespread Habitat Damage
Washington, DC — Commercial livestock grazing across the West constitutes perhaps the biggest threat facing the imperiled Greater sage-grouse, according to comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The comments were submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to inform deliberations on whether to list the iconic bird under the Endangered Species Act.
The comments are based on analysis of data available for viewing on PEER’s new grazing website, which features an interactive map combining range health data received from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) with high resolution satellite imagery to enable comparison of BLM’s data with ground conditions that are visible even to the untrained eye. The website represents the most complete and up-to-date look at the results of BLM’s land health status (LHS) evaluations of roughly 20,000 BLM grazing allotments across the West, results that PEER obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
The Greater sage-grouse, a ground-dwelling bird dependent on large tracts of sagebrush with a healthy understory of grasses and forbs, has declined precipitously across its range due to habitat loss and degradation from livestock grazing, development, mining, agriculture, and oil and gas exploration.
PEER’s analysis reveals that:
- Overall, 64% of important sage-grouse habitat, and more than 73% of priority habitat is located within more than 9,000 BLM grazing allotments in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Oregon, and California;
- More than 15 million acres of priority sage-grouse habitat are in allotments failing to meet standards due to livestock grazing impacts; 90% of this habitat is identified as failing due to current, as opposed to historic, grazing;
- Almost 15 million acres, or 28% of the priority sage-grouse habitat in allotments, lies within allotments that still remain to be evaluated by BLM. BLM began conducting LHS evaluations in the late 1990s.
“The sage grouse faces an uphill battle until the BLM accurately documents and drastically curtails livestock overgrazing in its habitat,” said Kirsten Stade, PEER’s Advocacy Director. “The agency’s own data reveal that to date its efforts have been inadequate.”
In addition to quantitative analysis of BLM’s LHS findings, PEER’s interactive map allows coarse-scale verification of these findings through comparison with satellite imagery. PEER’s preliminary analysis suggests that many allotments in sage-grouse habitat that the BLM has declared are meeting its range health standards are visibly degraded, with obvious impacts from mining and agriculture as well as heavy grazing impacts to riparian areas, springs, water sources, as well as uplands. In many upland areas, heavy trail density, excessive bare ground and fenceline contrasts are readily visible – calling into question the credibility of many BLM range health determinations.
“We hope this website will serve both as a tool for scientists, activists, and citizens, and a model for how the agency might steward its data and supplement time-consuming field monitoring with a ‘sky-truthing’ approach,” said Stade. “The sage-grouse does not have much time, and our approach is critically needed to complement ongoing field efforts if we are to restore rangeland health in the face of ongoing habitat fragmentation and climate change.”
Drought in much of the West has only increased competition between domestic and wild animals for declining forage. In Battle Mountain, Nevada, the only BLM manager who has formally reduced grazing on drought-stricken tracts became the target of a rancher campaign for his removal. Against this increasingly grim backdrop, the Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking, by December 31, 2014, data on the sage grouse’s status as well as on the progress of efforts to conserve the species and improve its habitat in order to avoid the necessity for listing.
Two satellite snapshots of an allotment in sage grouse habitat “Meeting all Standards,” showing clear damage from livestock in both upland and riparian areas.