There is an ongoing debate in the Endangered Species area that could have grave consequences for agriculture and resource development in Montana. Namely, the Greater Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus.)
The sage grouse, or sagehen, as it is commonly called, is a slow-moving, larger, clumsy, flying member of the Phasianidae family that relies almost exclusively on sagebrush for nourishment and habitat.
Its mating “dance” is extremely colorful, occurring on specific locations called leks. As with most Phasianidae family members, sage grouse return to the same lek year after year to “dance” and mate.
They have become somewhat more scarce in recent years, but not necessarily more scarce than 100 years ago. Wildlife data counts and inventories by various state and federal agencies on sage grouse numbers do not go back even 50 years.
Herein may lie the dilemma of whether the sage grouse should be listed as endangered. Nature is always in a state of flux. Wet years produce abundant forage; dry, hot summers enhance grasshopper cycles; and hard winters decimate antelope populations. That’s just to name a few environmental “fluxes” over which we as humans have absolutely no control.
World War II drew a lot of young, rural males “off the farm,” so to speak. The sheep industry here in Montana was huge – 4,280,000 head in 1934. Carter County boasted that it was the largest sheep-raising county in the USA! It currently ranks number one in Montana today.
The sheep business can and did respond to better climatic and economic conditions after the droughts and financial crises of the 1920s and early 1930s. Smaller farm flocks are very productive when labor (big families) are available. As economists would say, farm flocks do not necessarily conform to the economy of scale rule, i.e., bigger blocks are not quite so profitable.
Although we take it for granted today, Montana and many western (range) states were not always as “fenced in” as they are presently. Bands of sheep were “herded” by sheepherders in various rotational patterns over large ranges based on a known water supply. In addition to guiding the sheep, herders kept a wary eye for predators including coyotes, feral dogs, mountain lions, bears and raptors that would kill newborn lambs.
In 1942, a rodenticide named sodium fluoroacetate became available. It is commonly referred to as 1080 today. It is an extremely potent chemical that will kill any mammal or bird that ingests it – even in minute quantities. When injected into a dead or dying ewe’s veins, it permeates the entire carcass. Now sheep ranchers had a new tool to combat predators, while their traditional herder was gone to war.
Because of its indiscriminate toxicity, all the normal predators were reduced in number. Predators that harassed the sheep rancher where not the only victims. Skunks, raccoons, foxes, magpies and raptors including bald and golden eagles all experienced population declines. With minimal predator depredations, other non-carnivorous species multiplied. “Nature abhors a vacuum.” Sharptail grouse, Hungarian partridge, wild turkeys, ringneck pheasants and the sage grouse itself were able to multiply under an ideal environment.
Case in point: Jack rabbits really multiplied in the absence of the normal predator numbers. (How many of you can remember spotlighting jack rabbits at night in the 1950s and coming home with 50 or 75 head in one evening? One dollar per head, and it made good walking-around money).
By 1972, the predator imbalance was so great and national concern so high that an executive order was issued banning 1080.
In 1932, wheat was 25 cents per bushel. By 1974, it was $5, and in 2008 hit $10.20 per bushel. With bigger tractors, larger plows and better cropping methods, lots of grazing land including sagebrush areas got turned “wrong side up.”
When oil in January of 2008 hit $100 per barrel, well, rigs started to sprout up, sometimes in sagebrush areas.
Now the factors that led to the increase in sage grouse numbers beyond their historical (100-year inventory) work against them.
A slow-moving, not-too-smart, completely inedible bird is confronted with trying to exist in a fast-moving, energy- and food-reliant economy.
It is entirely possible that our 2014-2015 sage grouse numbers are exactly equal to 1914-1915 numbers. Records are not available, and not too many living souls can reliably remember what the population numbers could have been in the 1930s.
A comparable situation in this avian dilemma is the Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis). Lots of time, energy, money, fears, legal confrontations and federal intervention have not necessarily increased the spotted owl numbers. In the interim, the Northwest lumbering industry has been decimated. Although not entirely clear at this time, the Barred Owl (Strix varia) seems more likely to be the culprit in spotted owl number reductions.
An old business maxim: “In order to solve a problem, one must define the problem accurately.” Spotted owl aficionados did not accurately assess their problem, and subsequently the logging industry took an enormous economic hit.
An economic hit of the same magnitude could occur if listing the Greater Sage Grouse as endangered is allowed.
Plowed farm land is not going to be reseeded to sagebrush. The demand for natural resource recovery is relentless. Who, where and when can accurately, objectively present the sage grouse inventory numbers for 1915, 1935, 1975 and 2014?
How can any plan for restoration and preservation of the sage grouse be implemented without base line data?
Grazing, farming and other development strategies throughout the West are at risk here, all based on conjecture and imperfect data.
Editor’s Note: William (Bill) E. Almy, Jr. of Miles City is a 67-year resident of Montana. He and his wife own Keystone Ranches of Ismay and were the recipient of the Montana Stockgrowers Association’s Montana Environmental Stewardship Award for 2011. Almy has been a bird watcher cum amateur ornithologist for 80 years. This column was originally published in the Miles City Star.