Image: Jessi Johnson

Sage-Grouse SWAT Teams Looks Out for the Bird — and the Herds

By Judi Kohler

It’s not every imperiled wildlife species that has its own SWAT team, but then the greater sage-grouse isn’t your everyday kind of bird.

The spiky-tailed bird known for its showy mating dance performed every year on the same communal grounds — leks — is a signature Western species. Its fate is intertwined with the fate of the sagebrush country that is essential to hundreds of other species as well as the people who live and work in sagebrush lands. Elk, mule deer, pronghorns, golden eagles and song birds rely on this one-of-a-kind landscape as do ranchers, hunters and outdoor recreationists.

And that’s where the Sage Grouse Initiative’s Strategic Watershed Action Team — SWAT — comes in. While local, state and federal officials, sportsmen and women, landowners and nonprofits were hashing out plans to avoid the need to add the bird to the endangered species list, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service — NRCS — put together a team for on-the-ground conservation to save sage-grouse and its habitat. In 2010, the NRCS started the Sage Grouse Initiative to work with private landowners, key players in greater sage-grouse conservation because much of the bird’s habitat is on private land.

Collaboration between NRCS and the Intermountain West Joint Venture has built a foundation that now involves more than 40 public and private agencies and organizations. The Sage Grouse Initiative reports that to date it has partnered with 1,474 ranchers to conserve 5.6 million acres.

“The approach is strategic. The 18 on staff, employed by several different organizations, are all currently positioned in priority areas of conservation for sage-grouse,” says Michael Brown, a Pheasants Forever staffer who is the Sage Grouse Initiative’s field capacity coordinator.

While called a SWAT team, members, or SWATers, don’t swoop in with intimidating gear and equipment and a dramatic, swift response to a problem. Instead, they live and work in sagebrush country and listen to landowners as well as offer their expertise.

“Basically the SWAT team was meant to put individuals in working landscapes to work with the landowners and other partners and help with the conservation of large, open landscapes,” says Mandi Hirsch, a range ecology specialist based in Lander, Wyo.

Hirsch, who grew up on a ranch in northwest Colorado, signed up when the SWAT team first formed and now jokes that she’s “the old lady of the group,” the sole original SWATer. She has seen acceptance of the program grow among ranchers who at one time might have balked at even talking about the possible existence on their land of a bird once declared a candidate for the endangered species list. The prospect can raise fears of restrictions on the use of lands and government interference.

However, Hirsch and Michael Peyton, a relatively new SWAT member based in northern Utah, say more people have become involved as they’ve seen results and talked to their neighbors about their experiences. They know that improving and restoring sagebrush lands is as good for their business as it is for sage-grouse and other wildlife.

“They tell us what they to do to improve their land, whether it’s livestock grazing management or increasing the number of wildlife,” Peyton says.

The work might involve fencing off streams and then piping water to where the cattle are and rotating where cattle graze. Team members often act as liaisons between landowners and the Bureau of Land Management and other public agencies to coordinate conservation efforts across the checkerboard of private and public lands. They work on removing pinon and juniper trees, which have encroached into sage-grouse habitat. Wildfires, which make way for invasive species such as cheatgrass, are other threats to the range and habitat that they tackle.

“Good range management on ranches is going to equal better intact habitat and working lands for all species,” Hirsch says. “We use federal farm bill dollars to target specific habitat needs as well as the infrastructure and management needs of ranchers.”

The program’s progress might be measured in part by the number of ranchers who sign on and the number of acres conserved. Another indicator might be more wildlife, including sage-grouse, on the landscape. Brown, the SWAT coordinator, cites a change he considers a sign of progress.

“The biggest change is in the shift in the idea of it not being just about the bird,” he says.

It’s about managing lands in a sustainable way, in a way that’s good for ranchers, their animals, wildlife and the health of the landscape.

“The landowners see that this is effort is about them becoming viable,” Brown adds. “It’s keeping working lands working and by doing that, keeping species thriving.”