Greater sage grouse feed on Wyoming big sagebrush leaves and flowers at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge. Scientists say ranchers grazing on public land need to leave grass and forb stubble 7 inches high, but stockmen say that standard is too restrictive. (Tom Koerner/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The end of this story was updated Oct. 25 to correct the comment period (from 60 to 45 days,) to list the deadline date for comments and to provide a link to a BLM website with more information regarding public input — Ed.

Seventeen sage grouse scientists, 14 of whom hold PhDs, have told Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke that changes to greater sage grouse plans may cause continued population losses and land the bird on the threatened or endangered species list.

Studies by western wildlife managers suggest greater sage grouse numbers are declining 1 percent a year, the scientists wrote Zinke on Oct. 13. That long-term trend led federal officials several years ago to decide the grouse warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act, they wrote.

“But this decision was overturned largely because of … regulatory certainty,” the scientists said. That regulatory certainty came with changes in 2015 to 98 Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management plans that would benefit grouse and their habitat.

Zinke ordered a review of those 98 plans. The resulting report recommended changes to allow more oil and gas drilling, plus fewer restrictions on livestock grazing, among other things. If that report is followed, the scientists say, it will detract from efforts to stabilize or increase sage grouse numbers and improve their habitat — efforts that are necessary to keep sage grouse off the list of threatened or endangered species.  

Potential listing of sage grouse is a point former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell made to WyoFile in an interview in Jackson in August. Now that warning has the imprimatur of 17 avian scientists.

“If significant changes were made to the work that was done, the consequences could be a listing of the greater sage grouse,” Jewell said in August. “And that would result in the control of these landscapes being taken from the states and overseen by the federal government, and nobody wants that.”

Stockgrowers tout grazing benefits

Wyoming Stockgrowers Association, a group that filed suit against Jewell’s 98 land use plans, has asked courts to delay considering its legal action, Executive Vice President Jim Magagna said. “We agreed to further stay to see how all of this comes out,” he told WyoFile last week.

One of the group’s main worries is that the plans largely require grazers of public lands to leave behind grasses and forbs that are at least 7 inches high. If the so-called stubble-height requirement is not met, federal agencies could restrict grazing, he said.

A Game and Fish biologist inspects a raven’s nest in an abandoned structure in sage grouse habitat. Wyoming’s effort to conserve sage grouse includes programs to remove human support for ravens, which steal sage grouse eggs. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects ravens, however, and permision is needed before the birds can be harassed or poisoned or their nests destroyed. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

“A lot of sagebrush habitat in Wyoming doesn’t even grow 7 inches,” Magagna said.  

Groups opposed to public-lands grazing would complicate the picture by pressuring land managers to enforce the standard, Magagna said. Every time feds make a determination that less than 7 inches is OK, they would be challenged in court by anti–grazing groups, he said.

More recent research – to some degree — refutes that 7-inch requirement,” Magagna said.

There are other reasons to support grazing, he said. Because sage grouse chicks depend on insects for food, properly grazed pastures are a boon to their survival, he said. “There’s more insects in them because of the cows and manure,” Magagna said. “There’s more science that needs to be looked at.”

Changes across 67 million acres

The 17 authors of the letter to Zinke said the western landscape — 67 million federal acres — has been widely degraded by grazing as native forbs and grasses have been replaced by species more tolerant to stock. This happened “over a relatively short time period of extensive overgrazing during drought conditions in the early 1900s,” they wrote. Even reduced numbers of livestock today have only “slowed the rate of vegetative degradation.”

Among other things, the authors also dismissed a recommendation that Zinke pursue sage grouse farming, calling it “currently unnecessary.” They said there is “no evidence” to support recommendations for widespread predator control, and that any focus on population numbers should not come at the expense of habitat improvement.

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The group says its three principal concerns are that Zinke’s recommendations have the potential to reduce viable habitat, limit managers’ ability to influence human-caused disturbances, and limit their ability to improve vegetation.

The group applauded some aspects of the report and said the science community is available to consult on conserving sage grouse and their habitat on federal public lands.

Zinke said on Oct. 11 he would take comment on the report for 45 days. The deadline for comments is Nov. 27, according to the BLM, which issued a notice outlining procedures for submitting comments and links to other information.


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Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at or (307)...

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