Doug Cooper: Discussions on sage grouse
June 16, 2014
I went to a seminar on sage grouse habitat restoration and got educated, insulted, and enlightened. As is often the case, the education came more from visiting with other participants than listening to a speaker. Hearing a coal mine reclamation manager describe how they have devised equipment and techniques to plant sage brush impressed me a great deal. They plant sage brush in late fall when the ground is often nearly frozen so that they can control the down pressure in order to set the seed at the right depth. If they do it correctly, they have to wait five years for sagebrush to appear. Interestingly, while the State of Wyoming sets the reclamation standards, it does not tell the mine how to achieve the standard. With the pressure of a 192 million dollar bond weighing heavily on the mine, they are at least free to find solutions that work. Doing the impossible for the unreasonable should be their motto.
A woman from the Bureau of Land Management Office got my attention when she described working with private surface owners as being very slow at times. At a break, a phosphate miner corrected the woman as to who was slow. He told her that he worked with private landowners, and with the BLM- and there was no comparison. The private landowners were very quick to make decisions. The BLM could stall things for years. I decided the woman really meant that private landowners were hard to convince of the superiority of the federal ideas, which is probably true. Just once I would like to hear what the BLM really thinks about us but this came close.
The great mystery about sage grouse is how they survived the homestead era, unregulated mineral exploration and much higher levels of livestock grazing and then started declining in the 1970s. During the 1930s there were 350,000 sheep just in Natrona County yet there was no shortage of grouse. Now with all the talk about the residual stubble height of grass needed for grouse brood rearing it seems impossible the grouse ever survived. After settlement most wildlife species saw significant population declines except for sage grouse. My father told me about riding all day in 1922 to find an antelope to photograph. To get a sage grouse for dinner they walked up the creek a short distance with a broom stick.
Looking around the room I noticed that there were not many empty seats. Attending were just a couple of ranchers. The seats were filled with a small horde of federal and state employees, some NGO's, a few mineral people and a slew of consultants. From the discussion I don't think it will be long before the mineral industry will be forced to plant sagebrush on all reclaimed sites. The University folks are working on everything to do with sage grouse from the practical to the obscure. The lowly sage grouse has now become an industry.