Sensible sage grouse plan deals with wildfires, predators

Officials in Elko County have approved a pilot project designed to keep sage grouse off the endangered species list by killing ravens with poisoned eggs and reducing wildfire threats through livestock grazing.

Elko County commissioners say the program, set to begin on the 15,000-acre Devils Gate Ranch, is needed because wildfires and ravens pose the biggest threat to the chicken-sized bird. Fires destroy sagebrush the birds rely on, while ravens are by far its most common predator.

Ted Koch, state supervisor of the Fish and Wildlife Service in Reno, agrees that wildfires and ravens are factors in the bird’s decline, The Associated Press reports. Mr. Koch also said more needs to be done to reduce ravens, saying Nevada alone has seen a 600 percent increase in the scavengers in the past three decades.

Sage grouse populations are estimated to have fallen 90 percent in the past century, even as cattle grazing has been systematically reduced by government regulators under pressure from absentee environmentalists, allowing the buildup of dry brush, which has fed more frequent and severe wildfires.

Nevada ranchers report studies designed to determine how effectively ravens predate on sage grouse nests have actually had to be ended early, since all the substitute chicken eggs were eaten before the study was well underway.

It’s the first such private-local government agreement designed to stave off a federal listing, commissioners said, and was prompted by concern that listing the large ground-dwelling bird could result in federal restrictions on grazing, mining, oil and gas drilling and other activities on public land — the real goal of many radical environmentalists.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced in 2010 that sage grouse across the West deserved protection under the Endangered Species Act. The agency threatens to make a final listing decision by late 2015.

“We think it’s a program that will sweep the West, but we don’t think the federal government will support it. They’ve bought into the claims of environmentalists,” explained Commissioner Grant Gerber.

Grazing livestock reduce cheat grass and other fuels on the range that feed fires, commissioners say, and some of the worst fire seasons on record occurred after the government sharply reduced grazing on public lands in recent decades.

“If we don’t control the ravens and don’t stop the fires, the sage grouse are in real trouble,” Gerber said.

The Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project, which has actually called for the removal of all livestock, closing roads, and a ban on new oil and gas drilling, criticized the plan, of course.

“Their fixation on killing and poisoning native wildlife and turning lands back into a dustbowl is really twisted,” said Katie Fite, the group’s biodiversity director.

But Ms. Fite is wrong. Wildlife was not prevalent when the first explorers crossed the Nevada wasteland. In fact, wildlife has never prospered as well in the arid west as when ranchers are present to develop the water resources and thin out predators. That’s why — as federal regulators with ponytails and ulterior motives have gradually pushed cattlemen off the land, allowing both predators and dried brush to build up — populations of deer, quail, sage grouse, and desert tortoises have plummeted.

Ken Bowler, owner of the Devil’s Gate Ranch about 25 miles northeast of Elko, said he’s heading into the pilot project with an open mind.

“Let’s not jump to the conclusion that it’s mining and grazing causing problems for sage grouse,” he said. “We want to know what the real deal is.”

Both Mr. Bowler and the County Commission are to be congratulated for approaching the issue with common sense based on the knowledge and observation of the real stewards of the range — those who have spent their lives there.

The Devils Gate Ranch pilot program is well worth a try.

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