Friday, January 14, 2011

Thoughts on sage-grouse, horses, and cows

As I learn about the Greater Sage-grouse and its candidacy for listing as an endangered species, I wonder what management impacts this will have on free-roaming equids – or more commonly – wild horses. Protecting the sage-grouse under the ESA will list the shrub steppe biome as "critical habitat." Management regimes will have to be altered to preserve and enhance this habitat. This will include altering livestock grazing by using adaptive management (changing duration, allotments, turn out time, and intensity) and making sure horses do not go over AML. While Animal Right's activists are pushing for a moratorium on horse round ups, the Bureau of Land Management has to maintain horse numbers in order to prevent habitat degradation.

On a side note: speaking of AR's who claim that wild horses are making their last stand on rangelands, I argue that the sage-grouse is the species really making the last stand here. If action is not taken now to protect, enhance, and preserve their habitat, which is threatened by invasive alien species (juniper and cheatgrass), development, livestock grazing, mineral and oil development, and agriculture, they will be gone – extinct in the true sense of the word. And if they are gone, then our sagebrush biome is not far behind.

When it comes to sagebrush habitat and trying to conserve it by minimizing grazing, the truth of the matter is that horses are managed minimally while cattle are managed intensively by comparison. Where cattle can be managed in a way that works around, and even can improve, sage-grouse habitat, horses are left to their own devices – to roam without fences and all year long. They can congregate in leks during the bird's breeding season and graze to their heart's content without someone coming in and moving them elsewhere.

No studies have yet been done to provide empirical data, proving that wild horses and domestic livestock have direct impact on sage-grouse populations, but there is enough data to support that they do have an influence on plant communities in the shrub steppe biome. Should the sage-grouse become listed, I do not know how management will change for wild horses, or even if it will. It might just be that the BLM will have to be quicker to gather up excess horses to prevent overpopulation in HMAs that contain sage-grouse habitat. I do not plan, with my limited knowledge on sage-grouse, among other things, to make suggestions or form theories about what will happen if the sage-grouse is placed under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. But I do wonder…

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