Utah Sage Grouse Working Groups

Posted: Oct 3, 2005
Written by: 
April Reese, updated by Kathryn Sachs

There are 12 sage grouse working groups in Utah.  3 representative groups are listed below:
  • Parker Mountain Adaptive Resource Management Local Working Group: South-central Utah, a few miles west of Capital Reef National Park
  • San Juan County Gunnison Sage Grouse Working Group: San Juan County, Southeastern Utah
  • West Desert Adaptive Resource Management Local Working Group: Tooele and Juab counties, in western Utah
Objective: Increase or maintain sage grouse populations and minimize the threat of a federal listing of the species under the Endangered Species Act.

  • Parker Mountain: Government agencies, land management agencies, private ranchers, research entities, Utah State University, and the local community.
  • San Juan: Landowners, citizens, community leaders, Utah State University, and resource agencies.
  • West Desert: Government agencies, Utah State University, landowners, local industries, conservation groups, and county and state personnel.
History: With millions of acres of sagebrush, it's no surprise that several sage grouse working groups have sprouted in Utah. No less than 12 groups are working to improve sage grouse habitat and either maintain or increase the bird's numbers.

Three groups from diverse and far-flung areas of the state—the Parker Mountain Adaptive Resource Management Local Working Group, the San Juan County Gunnison Sage Grouse Local Working Group, and the West Desert Adaptive Resource Management Local Working Group—provide a sampling of how the sage grouse challenge is being met in Utah. Two of these groups—the San Juan County group and the Parker Mountain group—are among the oldest sage grouse working groups in the state, having formed in 1996 and 1998, respectively. The West Desert group came together in 2003.

All three groups are facilitated by Community-based Conservation Program Specialists from the Utah State University Extension, which was contracted in 2001 by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to help form and guide sage grouse working groups in the state. In 2006, following successes in the program, that contract was amended to provide funding through 2011.  USU's involvement was prompted by a statewide Sage Grouse Strategic Management Plan, approved by the Utah Wildlife Board in 2002, which calls for the creation of local working groups throughout the state.

A meeting of the West Desert Adaptive Resource Management Local Working Group
Photo by Erin Darboven
The Parker Mountain, San Juan County, and West Desert groups all came together—albeit at different times—to solve a mystery: the gradual disappearance of the sage grouse. Once ranging throughout the interior West, the ground-nesting bird has declined in recent decades, most likely due to habitat degradation and destruction. Each of the three groups came together at the behest of USU extension conservation specialists, who in most cases had established relationships with the local agricultural community.

While skeptical at first, many local landowners in each of the areas lent their support to the groups. Participants say many landowners have come to recognize that improvements in rangeland health benefit both sage grouse and cattle. In the case of the Parker Mountain group, whose members live among one of the largest populations of the greater sage grouse, the Parker Mountain Grazing Association ended the first meeting by writing a check for $3,000 to buy radio-telemetry collars—the first step toward monitoring the population to determine its behavior and habitat requirements.

While all three groups have similar goals, including coming up with conservation plans, gathering more information about sage grouse, boosting sage grouse numbers, and developing solid collaborative relationships among diverse stakeholders, they each deal with unique stresses and threats due to differences in geography and land use.

The groups take an "adaptive management" approach, using the results of ongoing research and monitoring to guide decision-making. If new data suggests that a management action is not working, the group will alter its actions accordingly. For instance, spraying to kill Mormon crickets in arid Tooele County has led the West Desert group to study how spraying affects insects that are important to the sage grouse. And on Parker Mountain, where high-elevation grazing is the predominant land use, the group discovered that the grouse population was suffering from a lack of the understory vegetation that the birds prefer for brood-rearing.

Accomplishments: The Parker Mountain group has developed a draft sage grouse management plan and signed an MOU that identified each partner's role.

The group has received funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), including $350,000 this year—the largest single WHIP grant ever awarded. The money, which is administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), will help livestock permittees on the mountain implement habitat improvements for sage grouse and other wildlife over the next decade.

In one project funded by WHIP, the group helped livestock permittees restore vegetation that provides habitat for sage grouse. Like many rangelands in the West, grazed areas on Parker Mountain had a lot of sagebrush but very few understory grasses or wildflowers, which sage grouse hens need to rear their chicks. In 1999, the group used WHIP assistance to restore those grasses on state-owned lands. So far, the experiment seems to be working. Forbs and grasses are coming back, and study results show an improvement in rangeland health that has benefited both sage grouse and livestock.

 Male sage grouse
Photo courtesy of Natural Resources Conservation Service
The Parker Mountain group also translocated hens to the Strawberry Valley to boost the local sage grouse population there.

The San Juan group considers its greatest achievement to be the completion of its Gunnison Sage Grouse Conservation Plan, finished in the fall of 2001. The plan provides guidelines for habitat improvement and monitoring of conservation strategies that will benefit both the grouse and the local community.

Like the Parker Mountain group, the San Juan working group has also benefited from USDA conservation programs. In 1998, the group succeeded in getting over 19,000 acres of agricultural land that also supports the Gunnison sage grouse enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a voluntary program in which farmers and ranchers agree to maintain or improve wildlife habitat. While the Natural Resources Conservation Service typically caps the amount of acreage that a county can enroll in the program at 25 percent, the group was able to convince the agency to make an exception for San Juan County, primarily because the agency decided that the entire 19,000 acres qualified as a priority conservation area for sage grouse. The CRP has provided a significant boost to the local economy, to the tune of $1 million a year.

In 2005, Utah State University initiated a research project to determine the factors affecting greater sage grouse habitat-use patterns and populations in the West Desert area, including hen nesting success. The West Desert group plans to use the information to come up with management actions to benefit sage grouse and local ranching communities. This fall, the West Desert group launched an anti-poaching campaign after group members reported a high incidence of illegal sage grouse hunting in the area.

Currently, USU is working with each group to develop a "flagship" project that is intended to be scientifically sound enough to be published in a peer-reviewed journal and also expand the group's understanding of how to effectively manage sage grouse populations.

Challenges/constraints: So far, the San Juan group is the only one that has completed a sage grouse conservation plan, although the others have plans in the works and expect to finalize them by the summer of 2006.

Like other sage grouse working groups around the West, these three Utah groups are grappling with a dearth of scientific information about the species. To that end, all three groups have initiated research projects on the local sage grouse population, the results of which the groups plan to use to come up with workable management strategies.

Another challenge has been winning over landowners, said Sarah Lupis, a Community-based Conservation Program Specialist with the Utah State University Extension. The groups that have made the most progress also have "good buy-in" from the community and include active participation by landowners. Having just one or two very committed citizens without the general support of the community makes moving forward difficult, she said. Geography can also limit participation, she added. The groups generally cover a large area, and traveling to meetings can be daunting for some.

And like many collaborative groups, the Parker Mountain, San Juan, and West Desert groups have struggled with the issue of trust—an essential element for any successful collaborative group. But participants say they have built up trust over the years, particularly the two older collaborations. Members say that trust is the result of participants realizing that they share common goals, and that sage grouse conservation and grazing and other land uses can co-exist.

Last updated: March 2009

For more information see:

Utah Division of Wildlife

Utah's Adaptive Resources Management, Greater Sage-grouse Local Working Groups Accomplishment Report 2006-2007

Sage Grouse Local Working Group Locator
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