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The Bird & the Herd: Sage Grouse and Ranching in Carter County

This story comes to us via the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Montana Department of Natural Resources (DNRC) and features rancher Brett Lesh of Carter County. Lesh’s was one of the first ranching operations to implement innovative conservation measures to protect Sage Grouse in Montana.

Story by John Grassy.


In the spring of 2012, Bret Lesh was trying to figure out water on the new 9,000-acre unit of his Cross W Ranch. Along with every other rancher in Carter County, Montana, his business was subject to the yearly calculus of snow, rain, temperature, wind. In a good year, his native rangeland in spring released its bounty of western wheatgrass, blue grama, thickspike wheatgrass, forbs and buffalograss, a carpet of bright green amidst the blue-gray sagebrush. Snowmelt and rain filled the small reservoirs and excavated pits that served as water sources for his cows. Sage-grouse assembled on their ancestral breeding grounds, the males to strut and joust for the attentions of nonchalant females. But that was a good year, that was maybe three years out of five. Bret Lesh needed to figure out water on his new property because a successful rancher in southern Carter County never loses sight of what can happen to his land and livelihood during the other two years.

When he stopped into the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) office in Ekalaka that spring, Bret Lesh had no doubt heard the talk around Carter County about the greater sage-grouse. The big prairie birds that held dramatic courtship rites and flushed in coveys – the mottled grayish-brown-and-white birds everyone in Carter County saw most any normal day and scarcely considered, except when they fed along the roads and posed a threat to collide with passing vehicles – were declining across much of their historic range. Wildlife biologists were in southern Carter County studying the birds. State and federal agencies were huddling to discuss conservation strategies. It was entirely possible in 2012 that the Greater Sage-Grouse could be listed as a federally threatened or endangered species. The sage-grouse scientists had given southern Carter County a new name: Core Area 13. “Core” referred to the relative quality and importance of the habitat for Sage-Grouse in Montana; it meant the healthiest, most intact habitat, with a stable population of birds.

Rebecca Knapp, the NRCS district conservationist in Ekalaka, welcomed Bret Lesh into her office for their meeting. In response to the growing concern over sage grouse, her agency a year earlier had launched the National Sage Grouse Initiative, a cost-share program for private landowners who committed to making improvements on their land or changes in their management regimes to benefit sage grouse, an umbrella species for 350 other sagebrush-dependent birds, mammals and other wildlife. In Carter County, Knapp says, agency staff and local leaders had decided on a low-key approach to the initiative. Sage-grouse were plentiful, which meant they were successfully coexisting with local ranching practices. The talk of a federal listing for the bird already had some landowners worried. “We decided to proceed slowly and limit local publicity,” Knapp says. “We wanted to see how it went in some other areas first.”

The water problem Bret Lesh hoped to solve was as old as the history of ranching in southern Carter County, where a dependable source of clean, healthful water is hard to come by for people and livestock alike. The county sits atop the Pierre Shale geologic formation, which contains water of poor quality and limited quantity. Beneath the Pierre Shale there’s ample water of good quality in the Lakota formation, but a well has to go 1,700 to 3,000 feet to reach it.
Early ranchers found a solution in digging shallow pits to capture snowmelt and rain for their animals. “It’s not as easy as it sounds,” Knapp says of the practice. “You have to find the right type of soil and you need a drainage that’s large enough to supply each pit.” With several pits developed across his property, a rancher could usually acquire enough water to get his herd through the summer. Ranchers in the county still make use of pits today, but a fundamental drawback remains: the water supply dictates where and when cows can graze. “If you rely on water from reservoirs or pits, you have to utilize that water when it’s there,” Bret says. “If they fill, you’re alright until early fall – most of the time.”

And when it’s a bad year, one of those two years out of five – when spring rain is scarce and it’s 94 degrees for five days in a row in late May with the wind blowing, and the pits and reservoirs become mudholes – that is when a rancher in southern Carter County may end up with only one water source to get him through until fall. He’ll move his cows into the pasture adjoining that water source. The herd gets to work eating the grass, then eats it some more. Three miles away he may have a pasture loaded with grass, but he can’t put his cows there because the water supply has dried up. So the cows stay in the pasture with water. The grasses become weak from repeated grazing, their root systems lose vigor, and the stage is set for soil erosion. After that, it may take just one major rain event to get the process started. Even if there’s no erosion, the grasses in that pasture will be hard-pressed to survive, and won’t produce as much forage the following year.

Scattered across Carter County, with its erodible, clay-based soils, are the scars of erosion that started this way. Most of the damage is historic, meaning it occurred 70 to 100 years ago, but Knapp says there’s recent damage too. In a climate that receives 14 inches of precipitation per year, returning damaged rangeland to full health can take 20 years. Bret Lesh knew all about this process. There were some badly eroded areas on his new ranch unit and he didn’t want history to repeat itself.

“Bret had all this grass and very little opportunity to use it efficiently,” says Knapp. “Maybe he could run twice as many cows if he had the water and the ability to manage where they were grazing. He was pretty frustrated.”
Bret described for Rebecca a possible solution for his water problem. He wanted to use one of the existing shallow wells as the water source for a network of pipelines and stock tanks. The tanks would be deployed across the 9,000-acre property such that every pasture had its own source of fresh water. With these improvements, he could escape his dependency on seasonal water; with additional cross-fencing, he could rotate his herd through different pastures, controlling the timing and duration of grazing. Once he had the system fine-tuned, he might even be able to rest an entire pasture or two until the following year.

The NRCS offered a cost-share program called EQIP, which stands for Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Bret Lesh was familiar with EQIP and asked Knapp about it. At that time, Carter County already had a sizable number of EQIP applications in the works and Knapp understood his chances of getting funded wouldn’t be very good. Instead, she decided to discuss the program no one had yet discussed.

“I mentioned that there was a national initiative focused around sage-grouse conservation,” she says. “I asked if he might be interested in having his application evaluated in the Sage-Grouse Initiative funding pool. And to my surprise, he agreed.”

The rancher saw an opportunity to improve his cattle operation; the conservationist saw an opportunity to secure and improve prime sage-grouse habitat on private land, where 64 percent of all sage-grouse
live in Montana. Bret made application for the cost-share agreement. Soon after, Knapp and her team went to work on a field assessment of his property.

It turns out that one of the time-honored formulas for surviving as a rancher in Carter County happens to be equally beneficial for the life cycle of sage-grouse. It’s an unscientific rule of thumb for stewardship of the native rangeland and insurance against bad years: take half, leave half.

Walk through a section of Bret Lesh’s rangeland in mid-May, when the new grass is coming up, and the bright green growth is obscured by a foot-high cover of residual grass. This is the half of last year’s crop that Bret left ungrazed. The grasses and other plants were able to store up nutrients and strengthen their root systems before going dormant. A plant that has been grazed will spend the final weeks of the growing season expending nutrients to rebuild itself. Its crown will be less insulated and more susceptible to winterkill. If the next spring should arrive dry and hot, it may not produce as much forage. Ranchers like old grass for their cows in spring, as the mixture of old and new offers a good balance of protein and dry matter. With its reserve of vegetation, a rested pasture is money in the bank.
After holding their courtship rituals in early spring, hen sage-grouse disperse one to four miles from their breeding leks to nest. Residual standing grass provides valuable hiding and thermal cover for hens incubating their eggs, and later for the newly-hatched chicks, of which only one third will survive to adulthood. Residual grass produces shade, another important element for the young birds; it also supports lots of insects, a critical food source for growing chicks.

Melissa Foster is a wildlife biologist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks. In 2009, Foster led a four-year study of sage-grouse in Core Area 13. Researchers captured 94 hens, fitted them with radio collars and logged their movements throughout the seasons. Foster’s research produced a wealth of data that Rebecca Knapp used as she worked with Bret Lesh on the conservation plan for his ranch. Sage-grouse continue to do well in Carter County in part because ranchers manage their lands for the long-term, says Foster.

“We have a lot of really well-established families. They’ve been through droughts, they know they have to care for the land,” Foster says. “I hear over and over from ranchers in the area – they say they’ve got to leave grass. It’s a wonderful ethic.”

Healthy grass is something all ranchers and conservationists can agree on. Sagebrush is a more difficult topic. Most producers value sagebrush for the cover and winter feed it provides and for the diversity it adds to the landscape, but they want to see a balance of sagebrush and grass. In some areas, sagebrush reaches a density that negatively impacts the understory of grasses and forbs. The species here is Wyoming Big Sagebrush; Core Area 13 represents the eastern extent of its range. Soil and climatic conditions produce a smaller, more compact version of the shrub than exists in other regions. It blankets tens of thousands of acres in a gray-blue mosaic. Sage-grouse are the only species of wildlife able to feed exclusively on sagebrush leaves. During the growing season, the birds consume insects, flowers, buds, and forbs, along with sagebrush; during winter, they survive on sagebrush and not much else.
One significant finding in Foster’s study involved the impacts of grazing cows on sage-grouse nesting success. It was believed that hens would experience a lower success rate nesting in a pasture with cows moving around. Foster’s research found nest success was actually higher (59%) in pastures with active grazing than in pastures without livestock (38%). “It wasn’t a statistically strong result and it could be a nonfactor,” says Foster, “but it definitely showed that livestock grazing is compatible with conservation.”

The reasons for the potential difference aren’t known. Foster suggested it could be the result of behavioral avoidance of cows by predators. Regardless of the reasons, it wasn’t long before that scientific observation, along with the findings about the value of leaving residual cover, evolved into a rallying cry for conservationists: What’s good for the herd is good for the bird. Good rangeland management practices, like leaving residual cover and and controlling grazing duration – benefit the rancher while maintaining the habitat sage-grouse need.

The conservation plan for the Cross W Ranch evolved from Bret’s needs, the resource inventory developed by Knapp and her team, and Melissa Foster’s study, which mapped the various habitat types used by sage-grouse during the year. For Bret and his wife, Kim, the first priority was addressing the lack of reliable water. Their conservation objectives included improving plant density and overall forage production, decreasing soil erosion, and maintaining and enhancing habitat for sage-grouse, mule deer, and antelope. Knapp’s team conducted rangeland and riparian health assessments and cover transects to compare the existing plant communities with their potential for a particular site. The quality and quantity of wildlife habitat was evaluated and rated. Foster’s data was used to map winter, breeding, nesting, and brood-rearing habitat for sage-grouse on the property; it also showed how the birds tended to move around the area, which proved helpful for Knapp and her team in deciding where to locate new cross-fencing.

There were a few areas with significant erosion that occurred 100 years ago, when first sheep, and later cows, were concentrated in creek bottoms to access water. The plan called for removing 5.5 miles of woven mesh fencing, another relic of the sheep ranching era, a type of fencing considered a hazard for sage-grouse and other wildlife. The old fencing was replaced with four-strand barbed wire outfitted with reflectors, each about the size of a playing card. Reflectors help reduce sage-grouse collisions with fences; four-strand fencing enables large wildlife like pronghorn antelope to slide underneath the bottom strand on their bellies, avoiding injury.

Bret’s new property included several mesic areas, which are vital to the growth and development of sage-grouse chicks. These are places where the ground remains wet or moist year-round. In late summer, when uplands habitats are baked dry, hens lead their chicks to mesic sites, which are shaded, significantly cooler, and harbor lots of insects. The young birds are growing rapidly at this point and they feed heavily on beetles, ants, caterpillars and other invertebrates. The placement of stock tanks and the grazing plan were aimed at reducing grazing pressure on mesic areas to create more and higher-quality habitat.

Knapp collaborated with state and federal land management agencies on the engineering and route of the water pipelines, while Bret selected most of the sites for the 15 water tanks. They laid out new pastures, each with its own tank, and designed cross-fencing to make each pasture a separate unit. The grazing plan Knapp developed was simple by design, based on the concept of ‘take half, leave half,’ rotating season of use, and limiting the duration of grazing to 45 days or less. Each pasture would receive 13 months of rest, and Bret would be able to start the year grazing a different pasture than he started in the year before.

After working with the new program for three years, Bret says Knapp deserves credit for preaching the benefits of rotation grazing systems that utilize rest or lengthy deferment periods.

“It works,” he says. “It flat works. If it doesn’t rain, I can guarantee you rest-rotation programs work better. When you can stay out of native pasture and let it make seed before your cows go in there, it just makes everything so much better. And letting the plants grow and build their root systems, they can withstand a lot more hot and dry.” With better access to water and improved grass production, Bret estimates his yearling cows will gain an additional 30 to 50 pounds each during the growing season. And the other sagebrush-associated wildlife has taken notice, too. “Antelope and mule deer were nonexistent on the place when I took it over,” Bret says. “Now I’ll see 200 to 300 antelope during their migration, and a lot of mule deer.”

The partnership with Rebecca Knapp, the Carter County Conservation District and the NRCS was entirely positive, says Bret – so positive that he entered into a second agreement for a conservation and grazing program on another section of his ranch. “I guess I was the poster child,” he says. “I don’t know that I had any reservations. I had a few concerns that I voiced about how big of an anchor are you going to tie around my neck in terms of what I can and can’t do. I quickly found out that wasn’t the case at all.”

After Knapp’s team installed the warning reflectors on Bret’s fencing, one local guy teased him, asking, “you teaching those birds how to read?” But it wasn’t long before curiosity turned to interest. Since that day in 2012 when Bret Lesh went to see her, 21 landowners in Carter County have sat down with Rebecca Knapp and entered into cost-share agreements for Sage Grouse Initiative projects. In February of 2019, the Society for Rangeland Management presented Rebecca with its Rangeland Management Specialist of the Year award, a national honor, and the highest in her profession. Knapp says the Sage Grouse Initiative “opened the door for landscape-level conservation planning and implementation across southern Carter County.

“I think over the years we’ve built a good working relationship with people on the land,” says Knapp, who has lived in Carter County since 1994. “Long-lasting conservation is inspired and driven by the producers. A project starts out with a connection – a conversation, a visit to the ranch – and ends as a series of improvements that span generations.”

The surge in conservation work for sage-grouse that began around 2010, when the bird was petitioned for federal listing as a threatened or endangered species, continues in the 11 western states with sage-grouse populations. The federal agency charged with making a determination on the birds’ status, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, concluded in 2015 it would not list the sage-grouse, opting instead to give state-level conservation programs time to work. In 2020, the Service is planning to conduct a status review “to assess whether our collective efforts to conserve sage-grouse are moving in the right direction,” according to its Web site. Following that review, the issue of listing the sage-grouse may or may not resurface.

While the conservation challenges differ from one state to the next, southern Carter County offers as good a model as any for the elements needed to conserve the species. First and foremost, sage-grouse require a lot of territory. “They use a big landscape,” says Melissa Foster. “Some of our hens had really small home ranges, while others made seasonal movements of up to 30 miles between summer and winter ranges.” In other states, studies have documented migrations spanning 100 miles. When bird numbers decline on breeding leks, it may be due to impacts such as new roads, dwellings, power lines, or conversion of sagebrush grasslands to crop fields many miles away.

This is the second major challenge: the greater sage-grouse cannot abide human activities. Biologists have found bird numbers dwindle in areas where a new oil rig, cellphone tower, or wind turbine goes up within five miles of a breeding lek. In these situations, the birds don’t necessarily move away. Foster says they lack “behavioral plasticity,” the ability to consider moving to a new place. Instead, their numbers slowly decline over time. Northwest of Baker, Mont., in a region of heavy energy development, “there are still a handful of leks where male sage-grouse dance conspicuously next to pump jacks or main roads. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told they’re living proof that oilfield development doesn’t bother sage-grouse,” Foster says, “but when you look at lek counts for that area, there’s a long-term downward trend.”

The National Sage Grouse Initiative administered by the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service is one of many conservation efforts across the West. Montana has a state conservation program launched in 2013. Local and national nonprofit land trusts work directly with private landowners on conservation easements, which limit development and protect sagebrush landscapes, often on a permanent basis. Federal land-management agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and US Forest Service have implemented rules for oil and gas development and other land-use activities in sage-grouse country. For now, the greater sage-grouse population appears relatively stable. But there is still more work to be done.

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