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Managed Grazing in a Sea of Sagebrush

By Lizzeth Mendoza

UC Cooperative Extension Modoc, Plumas, Butte, and Plumas Counties

When you think of managed livestock grazing what comes to your mind? Cows grazing in lush green meadows, reducing fuel loads, public land grazing, wide open spaces - how about sage grouse? We’ve learned through research that managed livestock grazing aids in maintaining sage grouse habitat which in turn supports stable populations. The key is “management”.

In order to understand how livestock grazing can coexist with sage grouse we have to first understand the ideal habitat for this avian species. Sage grouse prefer large sagebrush communities with native grasses and little to no trees which are commonly found in the western part of the United States. A prime example would be Modoc County and its sea of sagebrush. Within the sea of sagebrush, sage grouse need a diverse habitat of short and tall vegetation. This type of habitat allows for sage-grouse to breed, reproduce, and rear young with year-round feed.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of MANAGED livestock grazing. Managed grazing involves carefully adjusting the stocking, timing, and duration of grazing. Here’s why it’s so important, as you may know, unmanaged grazing is not sustainable to production nor our environment. Properly managed grazing is good for the land and also good for the birds. How is managed grazing good for the land much less the birds you may ask? Birds are attracted to a variety of grasses but what captivates them the most is rotationally grazed pastures. These pastures create the perfect nurturing habitat for nesting and feeding due to the quality of grass, varying height, and soil health. One species of bird that must be considered when creating grazing plans are sage grouse. If you do not follow the right steps in managing sage grouse lands you could negatively impact their habitat. Managed livestock grazing is very important and sustainable not only to the land but to other wildlife. Through managed grazing you can maintain or increase the native grasses in your area, sustain healthy plant communities, increase wildlife habitat, and much more.

Creating a grazing plan is a good start. Some key steps to consider when creating your grazing plan is how you plan to monitor, such as measuring stubble height, setting appropriate rotational resting periods to avoid soil disturbance and promote plant health, and having a goal on how much your livestock will graze prior to moving to another area. This can vary from 25-50% of your forage. In many cases during short duration grazing it is recommended to use only 25-30% of forage that’s available during rapid growth stage (NRCS, 2012). It is recommended to contact your local farm advisor for adequate grazing utilization in your area. You should also take a deeper look at the different types of grasses at your sites and recognize if you have native perennial vegetation or annual vegetation. This will improve your grazing practices and give the grasses enough time to store resources and rest.

So why are sage grouse important? In 2015 the U.S Department of Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) decided that sage grouse did not need to be listed as part of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) due to a vast number of conservation efforts already taking place thanks to public and private agencies, land owners, and managed grazing. By conserving this avian species, we are also protecting habitats of other animals like elk, deer, and antelope.

Data has been collected since 2011 to evaluate the impacts of grazing with a specific focus on the Sage Grouse Initiative’s (SGI) rest-rotation grazing system. This particular system consists of rotational grazing systems that are assumed to benefit sage grouse by increasing hide cover. This type of system generally involves moving livestock among several different pastures in the grazing seasons and changing rotations each year. Many of these pastures are rested (not grazed) for at least a growing season on a rotating basis.

Joe Smith from the University of Montana has been conducting research along with other scientists to find if rotational grazing systems and resting pastures do benefit sage grouse. Key data collection consisted of survival rates, nest success, and chick survival while taking into consideration vegetation. Most studies have also included sage grouse habitat and impacts to the sagebrush system. Research has shown that the availability of grasses is essential for sage grouse nesting. Through the vast research that has been conducted, it has been noted that there is more than one way to manage livestock that is compatible with nesting sage grouse (Smith, 2017).

Some say, “what’s good for the bird, is good for the herd.” Research continues to develop that shows how livestock and managed grazing can support bird habitats from the sagebrush sea to the grassland plains. Proper management by creating and sticking to a grazing plan can promote the long term sustainability of beef production and habitat for sage grouse on public and private lands. Managed livestock grazing is important to a variety of wildlife and our ecosystem. Let’s do our best to preserve these lands through proper rangeland management.


Other resources and citations:


Sage Grouse Initiative. 2017. Grazing Management In Perspective: A Compatible Tool For Sage Grouse Conservation. Science to Solutions Series Number 14. Sage Grouse Initiative. 4pp.

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