On a cool October day, a westerly wind made waves in thrifty, knee-high grasslands as it blew across the rolling hills of the Brooks ranch near Rhame, North Dakota.
Located in the extreme southwestern corner of the state, the Brooks ranch lies on the eastern fringe of native sage grouse range in North America.
Sage grouse populations are declining, most recently because of a big hit from West Nile virus. But historically, there were dozens of sage grouse leks (breeding areas) in southwestern North Dakota. Another limiting factor is the loss of Wyoming big sagebrush habitat in this region of the mixed-grass prairie, which straddles the nexus between shrub-steppe habitat and the Dakota grasslands.
Area ranchers like Rob Brooks are working together with local, state and federal agencies to restore sage grouse habitat by planting Wyoming big sage on private lands.
It’s all part of the Sage Grouse Initiative, launched by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in 2010. The initiative is a national partnership that aims to proactively conserve sage grouse and habitat on private ranches in 11 western states in hopes that the federal government won’t have to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act. A proposed decision on the listing is expected in 2015.
Wyoming big sage grown indoors before making the transition to the arid landscape in southwestern North Dakota.
That fall morning was a planting day. Brooks and David Dewald, an NRCS biologist (now retired) who organized the project, led a convoy of vehicles across the ranch to preselected planting sites amid native grasses such as green needle grass, western wheatgrass and little bluestem.
A diverse group of agency professionals and volunteers tagged along to help. The planters came from several NRCS offices and from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Pheasants Forever and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They all were eager to participate in the experimental project to learn how to plant Wyoming big sage in the best way possible in grasslands that historically had sagebrush, as well as in former croplands, and in fields planted with crested wheatgrass.
“Everyone was enthusiastic about being out there, working on something that wasn’t totally proven,” said Wayne Duckwitz, manager of the NRCS’s Bismarck Plant Materials Center. “It strengthened our partnerships working together in the field, and we all had a common goal of improving the habitat.”
Duckwitz credits Dewald with pulling together the partners for the planting project.
“He had all of the connections, his heart was in it, and it was good PR to work with all of the other agencies,” Duckwitz said.
Prior to setting up the planting projects, Dewald and Duckwitz searched for information about the best practices for planting Wyoming big sage.
“There wasn’t much in the literature about planting sagebrush, so we were kind of leery about what we’d get accomplished – at the least at the outset,” said Dewald, who recently retired from NRCS and works as a wetlands mitigation specialist for the North Dakota Department of Transportation.
Rob Brooks (center with stick) enjoyed participating in the planting of big sage on his private land to benefit sage grouse and his rangeland health.
“One thing we knew is that it’s very labor-intensive,” Duckwitz added.
Part of the sage grouse conservation strategy in western North Dakota is to improve habitat for sage grouse near existing and historic leks. Wildlife experts know that sage grouse prefer Wyoming big sage plants for nesting, brooding and winter cover. The shrubs also provide habitat for other wildlife such as songbirds and deer.
The plan for that day was to plant about 600 Wyoming big sage seedlings at four sites on the Brooks ranch. At some sites, the planting crew dug holes by hand with narrow spades. Where they had access, they used a Giddings probe with a 4-inch hydraulic auger attachment that made fast work of the digging.
“We liked using that auger as much as possible,” Dewald said. “It made it go really fast.”
Rancher Supports Project
Cattle rancher Rob Brooks was supportive of the project after participating in a workshop presented by the NRCS in cooperation with partner agencies about the need to improve sage grouse habitat in western North Dakota.
“I told the guys whenever you’d like to try it, let’s try it,” Brooks said. “I gave them the green light.”
The big-picture strategy of restoring sage grouse populations in the area by enhancing habitat – a strategy recommended by NRCS and the North Dakota Game and Fish Department – made sense, he added.
“We’re trying to establish habitat seed sources to create larger areas of quality habitat in the sage grouse core areas,” said Aaron Robinson, Game and Fish Department upland game management biologist, who explained the strategy during a workshop that Brooks attended several years ago.
Brooks, whose father purchased the ranch in 1961, remembers hunting sage grouse as a kid when the birds were more numerous. In addition to improving sage grouse habitat, he likes the idea of adding more Wyoming big sage to his property to help trap snow, provide cover for his calves in spring, and provide benefits for other wildlife.
It’s labor-intensive to strip sagebrush seeds from plants and gather them to plant later in greenhouses.
Brooks participated in the sage-planting day, and enjoyed it. “I love being out there, trying to make improvements to our land,” he said.
So far, preliminary results show that on Brooks’ property, as well as at a half-dozen other participating ranches in the vicinity, the Wyoming big sage seedlings are doing well, with a high degree of survival – about 60-70 percent. Approximately 5,000 shrubs were planted over a three-year period between 2009 and 2011. The seedlings are still young and emerging, standing about 4-6 inches tall.
“They’re still really small above ground, but I’m hoping that they’re putting some roots down,” Duckwitz said. “Usually that’s what happens with a plant like this before you see that much growth above ground.”
Initially, planters placed biodegradable cones around the seedlings, and some planting sites were spot-sprayed with herbicide to prevent grass species from out-competing the seedlings. Over time, the Plant Materials Center dropped the use of herbicides and cones because those practices didn’t seem to enhance survival, compared to seedlings planted without those measures.
They found that the best time to plant was in spring, when rain is most apt to fall in western North Dakota. October or November, before the onset of winter and snow, proved to work well, too. They also tried broadcasting some seeds in the snow. Southwestern North Dakota receives about 16 inches of precipitation annually, the majority in spring.
Plantings in loamy or sandy soils did better than plantings in clay. Surprisingly, wildlife hasn’t caused any problems with the seedlings as yet, Duckwitz said. They anticipated that pronghorn, deer and livestock might eat the seedlings, and they expected rodents might cause trouble, too.
“We noticed that the voles were girdling the mature silver sage plants, but we didn’t notice any problems with our Wyoming big sage seedlings,” Duckwitz said. Girdling means cutting a ring around the circumference of a tree or shrub, piercing the cambium layer, killing the plant.
NRCS has produced a summary report detailing the sagebrush planting field trials at the Brooks ranch and others, explaining which practices worked best.
Collecting Seeds, Raising Sagebrush
Before the sagebrush planting could begin, officials with the NRCS Plant Materials Center in Bismarck had to collect seeds from native Wyoming big sage on BLM lands in shrub-steppe habitat in Bowman County, about an hour south of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
BLM officials researched the best seed-collection sites for NRCS. Nancy Jensen, Plant Materials Center agronomist, gathered seeds along with several people from BLM and NRCS state offices. They hand-picked seeds in late fall when sagebrush branches were drooping under the weight of seeds. They also waited until the temperature dropped below freezing, making it easier to strip seeds from ends of sagebrush branches.
“It only took us a couple of hours,” Jensen said. “After the seeds freeze, it makes them dry, and they’re easier to strip off the branch.”
Wayne Duckwitz, NRCS Plant Materials Center, plants sagebrush on the Brooks ranch.
They placed the tiny seeds in bags and transported them to the Plant Materials Center. Jensen started the plants in January and raised them until May, when it was time to plant them in the ground. The Plant Materials Center didn’t have any experience with raising Wyoming big sage seedlings, but they knew the plant grew in a dry environment in a natural setting, so they didn’t want to overwater them or raise them in humid conditions. The plants germinated nicely, Jensen said, and she placed them in long, narrow tubes where they could grow into “plugs” for planting.
“We didn’t want to get them too wet,” she said. “Those plants like it dry. So you don’t water them as much. They came out fine; they had nice long roots.”
Seeing the sagebrush project’s success so far, Dewald, Duckwitz and Brooks all felt a good sense of accomplishment.
“The Plant Material Center did a great job collecting the seed and growing the seedlings in the greenhouse,” Dewald says.
Duckwitz liked working with the partner agency people on the project.
“It was a good way of showcasing the importance of working together to save a species that’s been native to this area for a long, long time,” he said. “It was kind of neat to get to meet all of the other agency people and learn something about sage grouse, too.”
Landowner Partners Key to Success
It was important to find ranchers who were willing to plant wildlife habitat on their private land to help an imperiled species.
“Mr. Brooks is one of our top landowner partners,” Robinson said. “He understands this project will benefit his ranch, sage grouse and other wildlife species.”
The Brooks family, which raises Black Angus cattle in a cow-calf operation, is accustomed to doing a variety of projects to improve the land, said Wendy Bartholomay, NRCS district conservationist in Bowman.
“If you took a walk on his property, you’d be able to see that he does a lot for the protection of the land and the resources. Rob really believes that whatever improvements he makes for his operations are also good for wildlife. He practices what he preaches,” she said.
Wildlife thrive on the Brooks ranch, Bartholomay said, adding that on a given day, one might see pronghorn, deer, songbirds, sharp-tailed grouse, pheasants and wild turkeys. The family manages its cattle herd with a prescribed grazing management plan to ensure that the pastures are not overused, she said.
Brooks hopes that the habitat improvement project will help bring back sage grouse in western North Dakota. Robinson thinks it will, along with other projects to return big sage that was lost over the past century for a variety of reasons.
“Eventually, the habitat will increase and establish in areas that have supported sage grouse in the past,” Robinson said.
For now, however, Game and Fish Department officials are watching sage grouse populations closely. Grouse numbers have dropped significantly since the onset of West Nile virus in 2007-08. Brooks remembers when that occurred.
“The birds really took a hit from that,” he said.”I’ll never forget driving around the ranch and seeing songbirds lying dead all over the place. The local biologists said it took a big hit on sage grouse, too.”
Since that time, Robinson said the stars have not aligned for a really productive brood year for sage grouse. Populations have been declining about 5 percent per year until 2012, when they increased about 15 percent.
Dave Dewald (left), retired NRCS biologist, and Wayne Duckwitz, manager of the NRCS’s Bismarck Plant Materials Center, inspect big sage grown in a greenhouse.
“Our sage grouse populations are at a critical juncture,” he said. “We may not be able to recover the population without augmentation.”
While Game and Fish Department biologists monitor the situation, Brooks hopes that the habitat improvement work on his property will show federal wildlife authorities that he is trying to do his part.
“My biggest fear is I’d hate to see them listed as an endangered species and have to deal with that,” he said. “There could be new restrictions that limit how I use my land. There are a lot of unknowns associated with that. But I feel real strong that there’s nothing we’re doing as ranchers that’s detrimental to sage grouse.
At the very least, the NRCS Plant Materials Center and NRCS field offices are learning how to raise Wyoming big sagebrush in the field with solid success rates so far, and the best practices that came out of the experimental habitat improvement projects can be shared with agency professionals who might have a similar goal elsewhere in sage grouse range.
“We did it at a large enough scale to know that it works, and it could be applied at a bigger scale,” Dewald said. “It was a fun project – one of the most-rewarding things I did in the tail end of my career with the NRCS.”