Last Friday morning a half a dozen cars full of environmentalists, mostly, are parked on the side of a rural road waiting for dawn. It is surprising cold, a bit below 20 degrees, and most of us are a bit under-dressed. As suggested, we stayed in the cars, and again as suggested by the folks parked next to us, quieted down. As the first morning twilight came on we could begin to see and hear the sage grouse males, big as turkeys, some now even out in the road, doing their spring mating ritual thing. Fantastic.
Kirsten and I were there with the staff of Wild Utah Project to see our first sage grouse lek. We were there with folks from the Salt Lake Hogle Zoo and were hosted by a couple of guys from the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). I was a little surprised these guys were there with us, particularly when they started talking about grazing as “a tool.” You can guess you are in a bit of idealogical trouble when someone starts to tell you this arid environment is better off with domestic cows. The NRCS is part of the U.S. Dept of Agriculture is providing millions of dollars in incentives to get ranchers to take care of the land they use. Ranchers and the ag people are running a bit scared because of the threat of sage grouse being listed next year as an endangered species. Given that there is said to have been over 15 million birds in the sage brush oceans of the West when Europeans arrived with their cows, and now are less than 300,000, the listing is a good bet.
My question, that chilly morning, was if we enviros should be helping the ag folks try to fend off the listing, like by putting flags on barbed wire fences to keep the birds from strangling in the wire. Much of ranching is in tough times economically. A lot of ranchers would be happy and willing to take a buy out for their grazing permits, if it were legal. If buyouts could be arranged on consecutive grazing allotments, the ranchers could be capitalilzed, cows would be kept out of the leks, and those fences instead of being flagged, could come down. Listing of the sage grouse is likely the only tool that could herd the ranchers, politically, into benefiting from buyouts. From a long term economic trend standpoint, it is clear the ranchers ought to take the buyouts now before they are forced out later when their permits get denied.