It may seem counterintuitive, but it turns out removing invasive conifers from sagebrush habitat can help the sage grouse survive. That surprising conclusion comes from research published by Utah State University Extension specialists: "Removing trees goes against what we typically think is good for the environment," says Terry Messmer, Utah State University Extension wildlife specialist. "But this study scientifically validates this practice as a sage grouse conservation strategy."
The researchers found that encroachment of conifers into sagebrush habitats is one major cause of sage grouse decline. As trees spread into the area, predation may increase because the trees provide new nest sites and perches for birds of prey. Conifers also alter sagebrush habitats by robbing the plants of water and nutrients from the soil.
Sage grouse habitat covers 165 million acres in 11 Western states. That's a loss of about 56% of from the species' historic range. At one time, the greater sage grouse population numbered in the millions, but has dwindled to 200,000 to 500,000 individuals rangewide.
Messmer adds that sage grouse are considered the "umbrella species" for 350 other species that depend on the sagebrush ecosystem for their survival. "Conservation actions that benefit sage grouse also benefit these other species and ensure the viability of the environmental services provided by sagebrush habitats," he says .
For the study, researchers radio-marked 96 sage grouse hens in northwestern Utah, and followed them and their chicks over a four-year period. Females that nested in areas cleared of conifers were more likely to successfully next fledge their chicks.
Charles Sandford, a former USU graduate student researcher, adds: "The speed at which these space-starved birds colonize our sagebrush restorations is remarkable, and their increased performance is the ultimate outcome in science-based conservation."
Rangewide, about 1 million acres of invasive conifers have been cleared to conserve sage grouse. In Utah alone, 500,000 acres have been cleared. The study was published by Range Ecology & Management and is available online. For more information about sage grouse restoration, visit utahcbcp.org.
Source: Utah State University Extension