AWR Blog

Conservation Groups Sue Forest Service to Stop Burning Sage Grouse Habitat

contact Michael Garrity, Executive Director, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, (406) 459-5936

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council filed a lawsuit today in Federal District Court to stop the Forest Service from cutting conifers and burning sagebrush, aspen, and juniper on over 3,100 acres in the Trapper Creek watershed in the East Pioneer Mountains, 10 miles southeast of Wise River, MT.

“The Forest Service wants to convert publicly owned and imperiled sagebrush habitat into forage for privately-owned livestock,” said Mike Garrity, Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. “This project is not only illegal, it is incredibly short-sighted because sage grouse are about to be listed under the Endangered Species Act due to loss of sagebrush habitat, and this project will only exacerbate the loss of that habitat.”

“The Trapper Creek Project Area lies within sage grouse habitat in Montana,” added Dr. Sara Johnson, a former wildlife biologist for the Gallatin National Forest and Director of Native Ecosystems Council. “This species is highly dependent upon dense sagebrush habitat for nesting, and moderately-dense sagebrush habitat and forbs for brood-rearing habitat. Burning sagebrush will result in a direct and long-term loss of this important habitat in the Trapper Creek Project Area.”

“The sage grouse population in southwestern Montana has been in a downward spiral for decades now because of grazing management,” Dr. Johnson explained. “Millions of acres of sagebrush have been destroyed in the Western United States, most of it from fire, herbicide spraying, and livestock grazing on federal public lands.”

“The sage grouse has already been found ‘warranted for listing’ under the Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” Dr. Johnson continued. “They will be formally listed in 2015.”

Sagebrush habitats have been identified by the Pacific Northwest Research Station of the Forest Service as a habitat that is in jeopardy in the Western United States. 57 species of mammals and 121 species of birds use sagebrush ecosystems on Montana’s Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. Prescribed burning destroys sagebrush habitat — the habitat loss can be permanent if sagebrush is replaced with the invasive and extremely fire-prone cheatgrass.

“This Project directly contradicts recommended measures by the Forest Service’s research branch to protect sagebrush habitats from fire and to restore previously-degraded habitats that have already been converted to the alien cheatgrass species as a result of fire,” Dr. Johnson explained.

“Many juniper habitats have existed historically with sagebrush shrubs within the boundary or ecotonal belt between the moister, higher-elevations forests and drier, lower-elevation grasslands,” Dr. Johnson continued. “Drought-hardy juniper trees play a critical role in extending the forest habitat down into the drier grassland regions where it increases habitat diversity and is used extensively by wildlife, including species of concern such as the loggerhead shrike, a bird whose numbers have declined 70 percent since 1960.”

“Juniper habitat also provides important big game winter range. Since juniper trees establish only periodically during climatic wet cycles, the removal of highly beneficial wildlife habitat by slashing and burning established juniper Area may be relatively permanent. Reestablishment of juniper may not occur in the future due to the ongoing climatic drying associated with global warming. The past extent of juniper reduction is unknown, but additional losses may result in a significant reduction from their historical distribution. That, in turn, will impact other sensitive species that will be harmed by this project, including the flammulated owl, pigmy rabbit, northern goshawk and Brewer’s sparrow.”

“The Forest Service claims that destroying sagebrush will stimulate the growth of new aspen trees,” Garrity concluded. “Yet the Forest Service’s own research also found that cattle grazing is the main cause of the loss of aspen trees in the West. Even if prescribed burning would stimulate aspen sprouting, livestock grazing will continue to limit aspen growth.”

Dr. Johnson has a Ph.D. in wildlife biology from Montana State University and was a wildlife biologist for the Targhee and Gallatin National Forests for 14 years.



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