Nevada group seeks balance for 'Mother Sage'

Two years ago, a handful of Nevada ranchers and government agencies got together to create a conservation think tank whose purpose was to find common solutions toward healthy sage lands and economically viable cattle operations. Credit: Dan Hottle/USFWS

By Dan Hottle
August 2, 2017

Gregg Simonds of Squaw Valley Ranch is passionate about the muse that lured him out into the rugged West more than 20 years ago.

“Mother Sage,” he affectionately calls the iconic sagebrush.

“She’s the keystone species out here, she’s my sense of place and why I became a member of this group.”

Sagebrush is "the keystone species out here, she’s my sense of place, and why I became a member of this group,” said Gregg Simonds, who along with neighboring Nevada ranchers and government agencies, is working for common solutions toward healthy sage lands. Credit: Dan Hottle/USFWS

Two years ago he helped draw together a handful of like-minded, neighboring Nevada ranchers and government agencies to find common solutions toward healthy sage lands and economically viable cattle operations.

He and other ranchers, along with land managers and biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management and Nevada Department of Wildlife, created a conservation think tank.

The collaborative focus of the group is “results-oriented grazing for ecological resiliency,” or ROGER, for short. They meet in offices, private ranch homes and on wide-open pastures.

At first glance, the odd mix of buttoned-down biologists and sun-kissed cowboys kicking dirt and sharing homemade green chili tamales and SPF-70 sunscreen on the fringes of a rugged and remote northeastern Nevada ranch hardly resembles sagebrush saviors.

But if they can walk enough rangelands together to get their heads around one of the biggest land conservation challenges in the West, they might one day be.

The high desert sagebrush landscape in eastern Nevada is habitat for plants and wildlife like sage-grouse, elk, mule deer, antelope and Lahontan cutthroat trout. Credit: Tatiana Gettleman/USGS

“This group of ranchers has a history of continually seeking to improve habitat for fish and wildlife on the lands they manage,” said Carolyn Swed, Reno Fish and Wildlife Office field supervisor. “We’re reaching out to learn from each other.”

The agencies hope that ranching expertise will help guide federal management plans benefitting habitat for plants and wildlife like sage-grouse, elk, mule deer, antelope and Lahontan cutthroat trout.

A pronghorn antelope crosses a sage-grouse lek in northeastern Nevada.  Credit: Tatiana Gettleman/USGS

In turn, ranchers are seeking flexibility in their federal livestock grazing permits. That often generates healthy discussions among the group members about where, when and how to turn cattle out to pasture each season so that both cows and sage can equally thrive.

The northeastern Nevada ranching community's strongly held beliefs about rangeland managment stem from more than a century of experience in northeastern Nevada. Above, an old ranch truck sits in front of an historic building in Midas, Nevada. Credit: Flickr CC 2.0

“The management of sagebrush on public lands isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s about identifying flexible solutions on both sides,” said Raul Morales, BLM’s Nevada deputy state director for Resources, Lands and Planning. “The agencies help the ranchers understand our goals for establishing and maintaining healthy public lands and the ranchers help us determine how to best get there that still keeps them operating in the black.”

“We both have strongly-held beliefs about how best to manage range lands that are oftentimes hard to negotiate, but working through the give-and-take is the only way to be able to shake hands and move forward in a positive way,” he added.

Building trust among the members has been key, often accomplished by spending time on the ground and having frank discussions.

“As with any group with this much diversity, it’s been a challenge to build trust amongst one another and expand it to new members,” said Jon Griggs, who manages nearby Maggie Creek Ranch. “It’s also been challenging dealing with some of the issues that we know we can all agree on solutions for, but we’re hindered by policy, rules and regulations that sometimes seem beyond our scope of fixing.

"...As long as we agree on desired outcomes for the health of the range – which we do – we’ll find ways of improving the land that will benefit us all," said Jon Griggs, who manages nearby Maggie Creek Ranch. Credit: Jon Griggs

"But as long as we agree on desired outcomes for the health of the range -- which we do -- we’ll find ways of improving the land that will benefit us all.”

The group is learning that both agencies and ranchers value healthy, diverse native plant communities.

Native plant cover provides food and shelter for wildlife, good forage for livestock and resiliency against wildfires and invasive weeds.

However, all parties will admit that one of the group’s main hurdles early on was reaching a mutual understanding of what the term “flexibility” actually means.

The expectations of agency biologists and the timing and duration of livestock grazing can seem to be in conflict.

Yet, the group has agreed to a common understanding of how to balance both, and of how to experiment and learn from each other along the way.

They plan to continually monitor results on the ground to see whether or not various approaches are working. That effort will take adaptation, innovation, communication and manpower.

Matt Murphy, a natural resource specialist with BLM, uses an auger to plant the sagebrush seedlings near Nelson Creek, an area burned in the Willow Fire in 2012, which is habitat for greater sage-grouse as well as Lahontan cutthroat trout and mule deer. Credit: BLM

“We’re breaking new ground, and that takes leadership,” Simonds said. “After talking for the past two years we know what our collective emotions are about caring for the land. Now moving forward we need a better, trusted system of measuring our results on a much larger scale that allows for some risk on both sides, informs our decisions and rewards those who maintain healthy land.”

Morales said the group’s first opportunity to test out some of the more flexible grazing options discussed by the group will likely come over the next few years as BLM renews federal grazing allotment permits.

“We now know where each other is coming from,” he said. “Now it’s time to start putting our best ideas on the ground.”

 

 

Dan Hottle is a public affairs specialist with the Reno Fish and Wildlife Office. He writes frequently about the western sagebrush ecosystem.