Arid prairie lands in the western United States are filled with sagebrush wildlife, but changes to this wide-open landscape have led to losses in migratory songbirds and greater sage-grouse populations. Livestock grazing is the dominant land use shaping this steppe ecosystem.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) recognizes that the interaction of wildlife and livestock in sagebrush steppe is an important relationship. New conservation grazing programs, supported by the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI), aim to benefit both the wild species and domestic livestock of the region. However, more research is needed to assess how well the initiative’s recommended grazing practices help the habitats of migratory songbirds and greater sage-grouse.
Safari Club International Foundation is one of multiple partners supporting research on SGI’s rest-rotation grazing practices. Rest-rotation is simply the practice of giving a pasture rest from grazing pressure the year after its summer use.
Migratory songbirds respond quickly to changes in their habitat and provide an early response alert indicating whether the rest-rotation grazing practice improves conditions for both them and sage-grouse, which are slower to respond.
Since 2013, the Avian Science Center at the University of Montana has been counting migratory songbird numbers on pastures that use rest-rotation grazing and comparing counts to pastures using other types of grazing techniques in central Montana. Researchers have found that songbirds that are more dependent on sagebrush shrubs, such as the Brewer’s sparrow, show minimal to no response to rest-rotational grazing, likely because grazing affects grass and not the shrubs in sagebrush steppe. Other migratory songbirds that rely more on grass vegetation, such as McCown’s or Chestnut-collared longspurs, are counted more often on pastures that use rest-rotation grazing. These pastures provide more of the grass vegetation the birds need.
The Avian Science Center concludes that different migratory songbirds have a variety of habitat preferences and that rest-rotation grazing does not significantly benefit all songbirds equally over the short term. However, there may be long-term benefits of rest-rotation to the sagebrush steppe and the wildlife that reside in the ecosystem.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MTFWP) has been monitoring greater sage-grouse at the same study area. Sage-grouse nest survival and site selection also do not seem to be impacted by rest-rotation grazing. The main benefit of rest-rotation grazing for the grouse is that working ranches keep habitat intact compared to other land uses.
In future years, MTFWP plans to study the survival of sage-grouse chicks. The number and health of chicks are important factors in determining population growth. Chick survival information will benefit both wildlife managers and private landowners working together to support greater sage-grouse and the health of the sagebrush steppe.