Federal officials are proposing one of the largest ever projects to remove juniper trees to protect habitat for imperiled sage grouse, a plan that might also benefit cattle ranchers.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management on Nov. 21 announced it is taking public comments through Jan. 3 on the plan to eliminate the trees from 940 square miles in Owyhee County in southwest Idaho.
“For juniper, these numbers are unprecedented,” said Karen Launchbaugh, director of the University of Idaho’s Rangeland Center. “This is bold.”
Launchbaugh said the sheer scale of the project could give scientists new insights into how to deal with vast juniper forests across the West that have sprung up in the last century. The project must first go through an analysis that includes an environmental impact statement.
Experts say juniper trees have expanded, displacing sagebrush needed by sage grouse and several hundred other species in many Western states due to fire suppression efforts and other human activities. The trees also reduce grasses for cattle.
“The cattlemen will benefit from this because it will mean more forage,” Launchbaugh said. “Also, elk and deer will benefit because it’s the same forage they eat.”
The ground-dwelling, chicken-sized sage grouse are found in 11 Western states, where between 200,000 to 500,000 remain, down from a peak population of about 16 million. The males are known for their strutting courtship ritual on breeding grounds called leks, and produce a bubble-type sound from a pair of inflated air sacks on their necks.
They depend on sagebrush for food year-round, and hens nest underneath the plants. Tall native grasses help screen the hens and their eggs and chicks from predators.
“Conserving habitat for sage-grouse is vital to improving the health of the entire ecosystem,” BLM Boise District Manager Lara Douglas said in a statement.
The total size of the project is more than 2,300 square miles, but only a portion of that involves juniper removal, which will be done with chain saws or by mobile, tree-cutting machines called masticators. Officials say the overall project area includes about 70 occupied sage grouse leks.
The federal government has been working to protect that kind of key habitat to avoid an Endangered Species Act listing for the greater sage grouse. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list the bird last year, noting ongoing conservation efforts, but will review the bird’s status within five years.
Conservation efforts include a 139-page plan released late last month by the Interior Department which serves as a how-to guide to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s five-page secretarial order in early 2015 calling for a “science-based” approach to safeguard the greater sage grouse.
The plan identifies juniper encroachment on sage grouse habitat as one of the key problems, and that a better understanding of removing junipers on a large scale is needed. The proposed Idaho project includes ongoing analysis of the results of the juniper removal from the 940 square miles.
“We need to somehow get juniper back in its place, and I think this (project) could be really great,” said Launchbaugh, noting the many studies likely to come out of the project in which she hopes to take part.