- Associated Press - Sunday, June 22, 2014

RHAME, N.D. (AP) - Rob Brooks has a slightly sheepish look on his face when he opens his cellphone photo of an unusual bright yellow wildflower blooming near his place this spring.

“I must be the only guy around who’s got pictures of flowers on his phone,” he said, with that universal expression a man has when he’s carrying his wife’s purse into a basketball game.

But this picture is of special interest to him and his wife, Holly Brooks, an outdoors woman whose sensitivity to nature runs wide and deep. The two are working to restore native grasses and wildflowers on their ranch to help one particular bird and maybe thousands of ranchers like themselves.

Tucked out there in those grasses and flowers in a pasture far from the house are the most tender and potentially valuable plants on the ranch. They are hundreds of big sage brush seedlings plugged into the dirt two years ago in an effort to re-establish the natural range of this once prolific plant.

The plant is nearly the sole food source for one particular bird, so much so that the sage grouse is named for what it will eat, along with insects in season.

The sage brush flourished on the Brookses’ ranch, with nearly a 90 percent survival rate, though not all of the 5,000 seedlings planted in area ranches did so well.

“I’m just amazed at how well they did,” Rob Brooks told the Bismarck Tribune (http://bit.ly/1lKezif ).

It’s Holly Brooks who spies not just the nursling plants, but tiny new ones growing from the plants’ seed spilled out on the soil beneath.

If only the plant’s namesake bird would do so well.

It’s been two springs since the Brookses have seen a sage grouse on their ranch, not surprising given that the number of these gorgeously iconic birds in North Dakota never has been lower.

The official count just released by the state Game and Fish Department is down to 31 males, compared to historic highs of more than 500 and more than 200 a decade ago.

The Brookses, who ranch in the birds’ core range north of Rhame, are doing what they can in cooperation with their local Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Soil Conservation District to reverse that decline.

The Brookses and other participating ranchers, along with people like NRCS district conservationist Wendy Bartholomay and Soil Conservation District watershed coordinator Cami Janikowski, are trying to run interference to help prevent the sage grouse from being listed as an endangered species.

That decision is hovering on the brink. Barring any congressionally imposed delay, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is under a court order to make that decision within 18 months.

Rob and Holly Brooks, along with other ranchers in the Bowman-Slope area, have participated in NRCS and SCD grass and sage brush planting programs, started fencing and grazing plans that leave more grass habitat in the fall, installed quiet solar-powered pumps in cattle water tanks and escape ramps in those tanks, and hung bird deflectors on barbed wire fence.

All these voluntary programs, done at a cost of about $2 million since 2010, are intended to make the western portions of Bowman and Slope counties more hospitable to the birds while improving the range at the same time.

“The habitat up here anyway is probably better than it was 20 years ago. I don’t know what else we can do,” Rob Brooks said. “If they make the bird endangered, it’s not going to make me have more sage grouse, it’s just going to raise heck. Whatever restrictions they put on won’t bring anything back.”

He said he and his wife have skin in the game through cost-sharing and labor and have benefited with improved management.

“I don’t know if we can keep them from going extinct, but there are things we can do to help them survive,” he said.

Back at the joint NRCS and SCD office in Bowman, Bartholomay and Janikowski say ranchers more than anyone want to see the sage grouse flourish.

“They don’t want to see a species go extinct. It is frustrating that the bird count numbers are down with all the work they’ve put in. It is a big weight on the private landowners’ shoulders,” Janikowski said.

Bartholomay said agencies up and down the alphabet feel like the ranchers do; the last thing anyone wants is for the sage grouse to be named an endangered species.

“It’s the fear of the unknown,” she said. Agencies get buried in paperwork and landowners, especially those who graze on public grasslands, don’t know what to expect and worry, like Rob and Holly Brooks do, that the first thing that will happen is grazing numbers will be reduced on federal permits.

Aaron Robinson, biologist with the state Game and Fish Department, said if the sage grouse were listed it would have a greater impact across a greater landmass than any other endangered species in history.

“There is a lot more at stake on private land, Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service land from North Dakota to California. Nobody wants to see this bird listed,” Robinson said.

He is putting the finishing touches on a state plan to help manage the sage grouse back into healthy numbers, as are others like him in the 11-state sage grouse region.

The plans will take time to mature and need to give the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confidence that they will work when it comes down to convincing the court and Congress to delay listing the bird. The Sage Grouse and Endangered Species Conservation and Protection Act introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in April would prohibit listing the bird for 10 years, if states have and carry out plans to protect species within their borders.

“We have a goal of 250 males. There’s no timing on that; the sooner the better. We have to get things stabilized,” Robinson said. “North Dakota knows better than some Washington bureaucrat what has to happen here.”

“We’re not trying to get grazing off the landscape. To get the birds back to a natural state is impossible because we now have humans on the landscape. It’s about balance. We all have to give up something, the wildlife has to give up something,” he said.

In the alphabet of agencies trying to make a positive difference, the Bureau of Land Management is in the final steps of a management plan that prevents any surface oil and gas development on its remaining unleased mineral acres in the birds’ core habitat. The U.S. Forest Service is just starting the scoping process that could have the same outcome.

Oil and gas development is the primary threat to the birds because of the way it fragments the landscape with roads, electric wires, pumps, dust and trucks, Robinson said.

“Other than oil and gas, the habitat hasn’t changed tremendously. About one well per section is the threshold. After that, the impact is just about exponential. With ranching, the impact is not as easy to pinpoint,” Robinson said.

Kevin Shelley, USFWS acting director in North Dakota, said it will take all agency and landowners’ hands on deck to avoid listing the bird.

“We’re all trying to do this together. We’re all stakeholders,” he said. Because North Dakota, in particular the western third of Bowman, Slope and Golden Valley counties, are in the fringe range, variability in the birds’ count is normal.

“As far as a recovery objective, the targets would be much lower for North Dakota (than other states),” he said.

“It’s not how many birds we have, but that we continue to have birds,” he said.

In this time of limbo, while the sage grouse is a candidate for listing but is not yet, these state plans, NRCS and SCD programs, and management decisions by the BLM and USFS are important because there is no overarching regulatory group or policy in place.

“If the bird were listed we could draw heavily on the states’ plan. The state is the expert in population and habitat,” Shelley said.

But even the best efforts and intentions are still subject to Mother Nature.

West Nile, a mosquito-borne disease, hammered the sage grouse population in 2007 and 2008 and contributed more to the birds’ decline than any other single factor.

“We know the main reason is West Nile, but now we’re trying to rebound within all that oil and gas fragmentation,” he said.

Ranchers like the Brookses are well aware that the bulk of the birds’ habitat is on private land like their own.

Bartholomay, at the NRCS, just rolled out another program intended to give the FWS support to delay having the bird listed and give ranchers within the grouse habitat some peace of mind.

It’s a form of insurance, called “predictability” that protects ranchers if they accidentally kill a bird if it is eventually listed.

The landowner has to agree to certain conservation practices, but in exchange wouldn’t suffer legal consequences if, for example, a cow steps on a nest and kills a sage grouse chick.

“The potential for that would be haying in a brooding habitat. If they kill the chicks, they have already proved that what they’re doing on their land is beneficial for the habitat,” Bartholomay said. She said ranchers are mulling over the 30-year program. “We have had some interest, but they’re not running into the door yet.”

Rob Brooks said he’s still thinking about the predictability insurance. He said when he sees a bird flush from a nest in front of the hay cutter he quickly makes a big circle around it. “Any rancher would do that,” he said.

Robinson said because of the record-low number of sage grouse males, it may be time to give the population an artificial boost.

He’s hoping game and fish agencies in North Dakota and Wyoming can cooperate in a translocation program to put 30 females out on active leks, or sage grouse dancing grounds, in Bowman County. It is this dancing by the males who inflate bright yellow air sacs and white feathers on their chest to attract females that contributes to the fascination wildlife watchers have for the bird. So does their size; they are the largest grouse species.

“Translocations have been done before and there is a protocol for success,” he said. Speed is all. He said the birds should be gathered in Wyoming in the middle of the night and flown and released onto a lek within 10 hours.

“It’s unknown if it would work in North Dakota. The habitat is very fragmented,” he said. Wyoming has the biggest remaining population of sage grouse, nationally estimated at somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 today compared to 16 million of the birds a century ago.

This plan to bring in birds from Wyoming begs the question: Is there hope for North Dakota’s fragile population without bringing in birds from somewhere else?

Robinson shakes his head.

“The optimist in me says, ‘Yes,’ but the biologist in me says, ‘No.’ Without help, I don’t think the birds can make a comeback in North Dakota. I hope I’m wrong,” he said.

___

Information from: Bismarck Tribune, http://www.bismarcktribune.com

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