Last winter, Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge played a vital role in a tale of survival involving two countries, hundreds of sage–grouse and a larger lesson about the importance of partnerships and habitat connectivity in the West.

The refuge—by its mere existence—saved an imperiled Canadian population of sage–grouse from starvation after a once–in–a–century snowpack blanketed southern Saskatchewan and northeastern Montana, according to David Naugle, a University of Montana wildlife biology professor and science advisor to the Department of Agriculture–led Sage–grouse Initiative.

Those 300 birds make up the only viable population of sage–grouse in Canada, where the species is endangered. They are also unusual. Most sage–grouse in the American West stay within 10 miles of their lek. The Canadian sage–grouse migrate. After feeding on short silver sagebrush during spring and summer at their lek in Grasslands National Park along the U.S. border in Saskatchewan, the Canadian birds travel 70 miles south each fall.

They head to sagebrush flats near Montana’s Milk River. Much of that habitat, owned by the Bureau of Land Management and private ranchers, has never been tilled, and it is home to plentiful sagebrush tall enough to protrude through snow. (“Sagebrush is the only thing sage–grouse eat in winter,” Naugle says.) This winter, even that big sagebrush was buried, so the Canadian sage–grouse made an emergency migration 40 miles farther south to Charles M. Russell Refuge.

“CMR was an anchor in this huge landscape for that 80–year winter,” says Naugle. “It was that refugia, the last resort, that saved the population of Canadian sage–grouse.”

That northeastern Montana habitat corridor received a major boost in February when the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), its partners and a cooperative ranch owner agreed to $3 million worth of perpetual easements to ensure that grazing—not development or tillage agriculture—will remain the priority land use on a 32,500–acre parcel. That funding, to be matched by The Nature Conservancy, came via the Sage–grouse Initiative (SGI).

The Montana corridor is a sliver of the 11–state range of the sage–grouse, which is a candidate for endangered species listing in the United States. The SGI’s objective is to keep the bird off the list. It is doing so by using targeted efforts to help private landowners voluntarily enhance ranch land sustainability while conserving sage–grouse populations on working lands.

Sage–grouse are rounded–winged, ground–dwelling birds that weigh up to seven pounds. Males are known for an elaborate courtship display during which they strut and inflate yellow air sacks on their breasts. There “used to be millions” of sage–grouse across the West, says Naugle. “Now, we’re down to a couple hundred thousand” in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, South Dakota, Wyoming and Canada.

For differing reasons, almost nobody wants to see the sage–grouse on the endangered species list. So, last year, as the SGI was being launched, the NRCS (which administers Farm Bill funds affecting millions of acres) approached the Service (which determines if sage–grouse will be listed) and said, in Naugle’s words, “before we do all of this great stuff, here’s our playbook; tell us what you like and what you don’t like, and we’ll tweak it” to comply with the Endangered Species Act.

As a result, landowners and ranchers across the West who enter into SGI perpetual conservation easements now know that the initiative and its land management practices are Service–approved—even if the sage–grouse is listed someday.

“Conservation Triage”

photo of sage-grouse
There once were millions of sage–grouse across the West. Now there are a couple hundred thousand.
Credit: Brett Billings/NCTC

The SGI is multi–layered and complex, but, essentially, through the initiative the NRCS helps landowners design and implement grazing systems that improve ranch sustainability. “Our number one goal with this program is to maintain the viability and productivity of some of the best ag land in the country,” says SGI coordinator Tim Griffiths. “As a side benefit, we do tremendous things for sage–grouse.”

The biggest thing the SGI does is target conservation, rather than attempt to blanket the sage–grouse’s entire 186 million–acre range. In cooperation with state fish and game departments and using state–of–the–art tracking technology, SGI conservationists have found that 25 percent of all grouse live on four percent of the land in the range and 75 percent of grouse live on 27 percent of the range. So, the SGI focuses on those core areas. It emphasizes saving the best of the best habitat and, out of practical necessity, deemphasizes saving outlying pockets. It does what benefits the greatest number of birds. “We call it conservation triage,” says Naugle.

The SGI addresses different threats in different ways in different parts of the range. In Montana, primary concerns are habitat fragmentation and “sod busting” of previously untilled grazing lands. In Wyoming, energy development and subdivision are major concerns. In southern Idaho and northern Nevada, wildfires are worrisome. In Oregon, the issue is encroachment of conifer trees (in which grouse predators perch).

Two conservation practices the SGI encourages on the targeted lands are the removal of conifers—which opens up habitat for sage–grouse and increases forage available for livestock—and marking or removing fences near leks, thus dramatically reducing fatal fence strikes. The beauty of the SGI, Naugle and Griffiths say, is that what is good for rangeland is also good for grouse.

“If you have sage–grouse on your property, be it a refuge or a private working ranch, you are doing something right,” says Naugle. “They’re an umbrella species. If you’re doing good things for sage–grouse, you’re doing good things for all other species that the Fish and Wildlife Service is mandated to care about.”

“Ranchers are excited about this whole Sage–grouse Initiative because it achieves all this by improving the sustainability of their ranch,” says Griffiths.

As for Charles M. Russell Refuge’s role last winter as savior of the Canadian sage–grouse, Naugle says: “This is the beautiful story of our Refuge System playing a major role in landscape conservation. An 80–year winter comes by, and the Fish and Wildlife Service steps in and says, ’It’s okay; we’ve got it.’ ”