Good for the Bird is Good for the Cows!
Local Ranchers Improve Wildlife Habitat and Cattle Operations through NRCS
Sage Grouse Initiative Programs
By Scott Scroggie, Range & Wildlife
Conservationist, Pheasants Forever-NRCS-NDOW, Ely, Nevada
Ely, Nevada - Cattle ranchers Don and Sheila Phillips want to help out sage
grouse on their ranch, but Don wasn’t convinced those new white vinyl markers
he’d agreed to add to the top strands of certain fences would do anything
to prevent bird collisions.
A few weeks later, Don stopped in the Ely NRCS (Natural Resources
Conservation Service) office with big news.
“I was headed out in the field and the sage grouse took off and
headed right for that fence, but sure enough, at the last minute they went up
and over those markers!”
Don and his wife Sheila are participants in the Sage Grouse
Initiative, a partnership program started by the NRCS that’s available to
farmers and ranchers who want to improve their range or farmlands while
simultaneously enhancing wildlife habitat.
The Sage Grouse Initiative launched in 2010 in response to the
proposed listing of the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act (a
decision due in 2015). The sage grouse currently occupies rangelands across 11
western states, including Nevada, where the western lifestyle and livelihood is
very much alive. The overarching goal of this initiative is to conserve and
improve wildlife habitat and prevent a listing of the species through
sustainable ranching. It’s a voluntary, incentive-based approach that has become
a new paradigm for conservation.
The Phillips own and operate the Steptoe Valley Ranch near Ely.
They originally got started over in Roosevelt and Springville, Utah back in
1961. Ranching has been a way of life for the Phillips family for more than 50
years and continues to be an important lifestyle for them here in Nevada.
The overall ranching operation relies both on private deeded land
as well as BLM issued grazing permits. The Phillips’ own approximately 3,800
acres of private land and 54,000 acres on BLM permitted grounds. This
combination of private and public holdings has
given the opportunity of a feasible grazing operation to exist.
Soon after the couple settled on the Steptoe Ranch in March of
2000, they immediately became active in the White Pine County Water Board, the
Public Land Use Advisory Council, and the local conservation district. Don has
been on the conservation district board for 10 years and has received the
Outstanding Cooperator Award in 2002 and a Service Award in 2012.
They first signed up the Steptoe Ranch with NRCS in the spring of
2000 and have since carried out various conservation measures to improve their
ground for both cattle and wildlife. Recently they applied to do more for the
land through the Sage Grouse Initiative.
The Phillips say they signed up with the program to do their part
to keep the bird from becoming listed. They feel that partnership-driven
conservation is key to maintaining working ranches on the landscape. Don and
Sheila suggest to others in the ranching and farming communities to get involved
and become an active part of the solution.
The Steptoe ranch is a showcase for farm and ranch improvement
projects that improve the overall quality of both their operation and wildlife
habitat. Such projects include noxious weed control, brush management
treatments, riparian improvements, range seedings, two pivot installations and
just recently, fence marking and wildlife escape ramps in all existing water
These improvements have increased production on their rangelands,
provided sufficient water, cover and forage for sage grouse, and have used fence
markers and escape ramps as preventative techniques to reduce mortalities of
sage grouse and other wildlife.
They’re thrilled to know firsthand the fence markers are working
and already saving grouse. According to scientific studies, strategically marked
fences can reduce collisions by 83 percent. Across the west, Sage Grouse
Initiative participants have marked or moved 350 miles of high-risk fences near
leks (breeding grounds), resulting in an estimated reduction of 1,500 to 1,800
sage grouse collisions.
the year the Phillips family enjoys watching the wildlife that their grazing
operation attracts, including sage grouse. In fact Don keeps a count of the
birds that use his fields throughout the year and takes notes on when sage
grouse leave his ranch and head to the sagebrush flats nearby for winter. To
date, Don has seen as many as 67 grouse at one time in his fields and takes
pride in seeing that population grow with each coming year.
The Phillips have a strong passion for the ranching lifestyle,
the natural surroundings and the hard work it takes to be successful. They’re
equally passionate about keeping this operation viable into the future. Soon,
their daughter’s family will begin to take the reins and continue the family
The Phillips are constantly looking for new ideas and techniques
to improve their operation as well as increase the wildlife value of their
ranch. They realize that a listing of this bird could mean stringent
restrictions on future operations and want to do everything they can to prevent
Native American Youths Improve Sage-Grouse Habitat
In the middle of Nevada, miles from anywhere, eight Native
American young adults spent their summer working to improve sagebrush habitat
for the greater sage-grouse. Habitat for this ground-dwelling bird, native to
much of the American West, has been dwindling in recent years, due to wildfires,
invasive species and fencing.
young adults, all residents of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation and the Battle
Mountain Indian Colony, range in age from 18 to 26. They were happy to find work
that would let them be outdoors and physically active. Their employment was made
possible by a partnership with the landowner, the Bootstraps Program of
University of Nevada Cooperative Extension in Lander County, the USDA’s Natural
Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and other partners. "We couldn’t have
achieved this success without the help of many partners, especially the Bureau
of Land Management" said Rod Davis, Bootstraps Coordinator. Most of the work was
accomplished on public land.
The Bootstraps Program teaches life skills and job
responsibility by combining formal classroom instruction with real outdoor work
experience. NRCS’ role was to provide technical guidance and financial
assistance through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
The eight young people are working to restore sage-grouse
habitat on 1,000 acres of public land and 400 acres of private land. Restoration
means the removal of invasive pinyon pine and juniper trees in order to provide
optimal conditions for the native sagebrush that provides food and cover for the
In June 2011, the Bootstraps workers received intensive training
from Extension specialists covering use of chainsaws, two-way radios, satellite
phones and GPS units, as well as safety, first aid and basic job skills. Once
trained and equipped, they started work. They removed only certain pinyon pine
and juniper trees. They left old-growth trees standing, as well as trees on
steep slopes, because removing them would create other problems, like erosion.
The cut trees were left on the ground to protect the soil from erosion and
provide shelter for wildlife.
When the crew wasn’t cutting trees, they were fencing springs
and meadow areas (right) to protect them from overuse by livestock or wild
horses. Meadows are critical habitat for young sage-grouse.
All of the young adults say they have enjoyed the experience—especially
working outside, and with their hands. Most of the pinyon pine and juniper will
be cut this fall, and next year a new Bootstraps crew will finish it and start
work in other areas.