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Strategic cattle grazing could increase the food supply of greater sage-grouse, study finds

Two greater sage-grouse on a rangeland in Wyoming.
Tom Koerner
Greater sage-grouse near Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming.

New research shows cattle grazing can coexist with one of the most iconic and threatened birds in the West.

The greater sage-grouse is known for its elaborate mating ritual and sensitive nesting areas. The chicken-sized bird lives among sagebrush in at least nine Western states, but its habitat is declining. For years, wildlife officials have debated whether the species should be federally protected. Ranching is often at the center of the debate.

But strategically heavy cattle grazing in the spring and summer could increase some of the plants and bugs the sage-grouse relies on for food sources, according to a study led by researchers from the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR). The U.S. Department of Agriculture also participated in the study.

“Beetles tended to do better with more heavier grazed areas,” said William Richardson, a postdoctoral scholar at UNR and the study’s lead researcher. “We did find that as we did graze more intensely, certain meadows actually elongated their plant lifecycle. So, when they first started to get green, when they ended being green, actually elongated.”

In other words, some flowering plants in heavier grazed meadows had longer growing seasons, giving sage-grouse and newly-hatched chicks that food source for a longer period.

Richardson and colleagues tracked the impact of three grazing intensities on seven Great Basin meadows in central Nevada. They used high-resolution digital cameras known as phenocams to capture time-lapse images of foliage over long durations.

Fellow researcher Lucas Phipps said the study looked to find if shifting grazing methods can improve the plant communities across mountain meadow systems.

“That betters not only the wildlife that are out there,” Phipp said, “but the long term game for these ranchers because a stable, resilient, healthy native plant community is the best plant community they could possibly have.”

The researchers say the study could be used to inform future land management decisions about grazing and habitat protection.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.

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