FOR THE GREATER GOOD: South Dakota approves sage grouse plan | TSLN.com

FOR THE GREATER GOOD: South Dakota approves sage grouse plan

Wildlife managers and ranchers agree that livestock grazing is needed for the recovery of the sage grouse. Photo by Denise Zolnoski

Eleven western states are taking the initiative to save the sage grouse in an effort to prevent a federal Endangered Species listing of the bird.

South Dakota recently took a step forward as part of that effort.

The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Commission, on Nov. 6, approved a document aimed at protecting the greater sage grouse and its habitat.

Commissioner and rancher Barry Jenson of White River, S.D., said if numbers continue to drop a listing could happen, and he hopes the plan will help prevent that.

"Hopefully they come back to a point where we can hunt again and see a few of them around," he said, adding that any time an animal is listed, the brunt of the responsibility for protection falls on the landowner.

"We know from the spotted owl and of those other animals, federal listing has a dramatic affect on the area and landowners," Jenson said.

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Good grazing management is key to the success of the bird that has declined in numbers in recent decades, said the man who oversaw the writing of the plan, S.D. Game, Fish and Parks chief of wildlife, Tom Kirshenmann.

Kirshenmann recently viewed some of his agency's identified "core areas"–areas of focus for sage grouse recovery– with Larry Nelson, a Harding County cattle and sheep rancher, and other local ranchers who operate on some of the targeted rangeland.

"Grazing is an important and useful tool. We put the plan together knowing full well that grazing is beneficial and we talked about that a lot and pointed that out in the management plan," Kirshenmann said.

Gillian Bee, an outreach coordinator employed by Pheasants Forever to help implement the Sage Grouse Initiative, agrees. "Part of my job is to ecducate the public on how important it is to keep ranchers on the land because what is good for ranching is good for sage grouse," she said.

"The plan jibes with what a lot of producers are already doing. Compared to some other areas with sage grouse, South Dakota doesn't have as many threats. We've got people that are ranching and managing their land well. When it comes down to ranching in South Dakota, I don't think the management plan will kibosh what they are doing."

Bee said she works with government agencies including the NRCS and is headquartered in their office. One of her main goals is outreach. "I do outreach, tours, contracting with the NRCS, assisting landowners with EQIP. Hopefully we are helping with the health of the range and helping with sage grouse habitat."

"This is really a complex issue. That's what has concerned me more than anything," Nelson said.

He said in some parts of the country overgrazing or farming might be impacting sage grouse habitat, but that is not a problem in most of South Dakota's core areas.

"I graze cattle on Moreau River Grazing Association and I graze sheep on land of my own that joins Moreau River Grazing. Sheep grazing is not necessarily considered by some experts to be good for sage grouse habitat but on my land this is where the sage grouse are. They are on pasture that has been well-taken care of. What are we gong to change that is going to make it better? Numbers have been declining everywhere but we still have sage grouse so that should tell you something."

Nelson said he has no argument with the plan's identification of core areas and leks.

The plan is a compilation of suggested management practices. Government agencies will work together to offer incentives to landowners for certain management practices deemed positive for sage grouse.

The plan directs the agencies to:

Monitor oil, gas and other mineral development including watching for new drilling permits.

Provide management recommendations on wind energy projects.

Prevent fire.

Advocate for land use policies including property tax structure that preserve and protect native habitat.

"Our approach has always been more of the collaborative effort to do on-the-ground management," Kirshenmann said. "We have partnered with Pheasants Forever to put an office in Belle Fourche to work on the sage grouse initiative program. That position works with individual landowners and those with school land leases." He said that federal land like BLM is covered under that agency's sage grouse management plan.

The state's game oversight agency is thinking outside the box with their planned monitoring activities. Kirshenmann said they will conduct additional studies in Harding County to identify heavily populated areas.

They plan to monitor individual sage grouse daily using radio collars and cameras on nests. He believes this will help them determine the cause of death, including predators, which ranchers say are a major concern.

The game agency will conduct annual surveys with local landowners, with questions about things like floods, hail or other events that might have had an impact on sage grouse numbers any particular year or season.

"They can help describe what's happening at the local level. We plan to implement that this coming year," Kirshenmann said.

The impetus behind the state plans – being written or revised by all eleven states considered as sage grouse habitat – is to demonstrate that threats are being reduced in order for sage grouse numbers to increase, Kirshenmann said. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is gathering information on sage grouse numbers and population threats, and will announce in September of 2015 whether or not they are placing the bird on the Endangered Species list. If it is listed, they will make a determination of "threatened" or "endangered," with an "endangered" designation triggering the most aggressive management practices nationwide.

While he has "no idea" how the USFWS will rule, Kirshenmann said his agencies and others in the state hope to keep the bird off the list so the state can continue to manage more locally.

"I can assure you that no other state that has them wants them listed either," he said.

According to the Sage Grouse Initiative, the 11 western states with sagebrush-steppe habitat and sage grouse are: Oregon, Washington, California (northern), Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, North and South Dakota.

"I hope that the state plan is good and gets implemented because if it doesn't and the grouse gets listed we'll have to deal with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and I don't know what else they can expect us to do to change our grazing. At this point 90 percent are meeting their standards and guidelines," Nelson said. F

The plan’s six objectives are:

Maintain or increase/improve the existing status and range of sage/steppe habitat in SD

Annually monitor sage-grouse population and distribution

Use results from lek counts and inference from past hunting seasons to guide recommendations for the annual hunting season

Develop a public outreach and educational plan that informs the public, landowners, stakeholders, and wildlife/conservation agencies about sage grouse management and the issues of highest concern

Support local, interstate and interagency sage-grouse research projects and collaborative conservation planning efforts

Document disease outbreaks and develop management responses