Before Thanksgiving, I interviewed Alison Holloran, Deputy Director of Audubon Wyoming. Alison works alongside Regional Director Brian Rutledge; and together they developed the Audubon Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative. Alison earned her master’s degree at the University of Wyoming, studying the effects of natural gas drilling on Greater sage grouse populations. She met her husband, Matt (renowned sage grouse researcher) on the Pinedale, WY Mesa and has spent her entire professional career working for sagebrush and sage grouse conservation. She is a conservation hero and I’ll post a picture of her here… whenever I can catch up with her in the field. Thanks to Alison for graciously giving your time and sharing your expertise.
Me: Why do sagebrush landscapes matter?
Alison: Sagebrush landscapes can be looked at from many different perspectives. First, the historic perspective; then the anthropogenic perspective. When you think of the American West, you think of sagebrush, kind of wide sweeping open plains, the cowboy story. We have a lot of history and love for the land just based on what we imagine the West to be. What we imagine is more important from the wildlife side. In Wyoming, we have some of the biggest expanses of sagebrush that dip down into Colorado and Utah, up into Montana, across the Great Basin and they provide a lot of wildlife habitat. Sagebrush provides range for mule deer and elk, which from the human side of things and economically, provides a stable base for hunting and ecotourism. Unfortunately, in the early days sagebrush was looked upon as a problem species – one that we needed to clear out for development and agricultural practices – so we really have taken out a lot of our sagebrush ecosystems and therefore a lot of our sagebrush obligates (species). We have seen mule deer populations diminish, we’ve seen sage grouse populations diminish, not to mention all of the other obligates that we don’t really think about, the bird species, sage thrasher, sage sparrow, Brewer’s sparrow, species like reptiles – you know people don’t like to think of snakes but they are out there as well, right down to the insects and the plant diversity has diminished. So we are looking at an ecosystem that is extremely important for many, many species of wildlife and hence very important for our economy in the West and yet we keep slicing it and dicing it and taking it away. We need to save our environment to save ourselves. And that’s really why I’m in it, not only for myself but also for my children. I’m trying to save some of the environment so that future generations have something to enjoy, to recreate in… Besides the grasslands, the sagebrush ecosystem is one of our most imperiled ecosystems in the United States.
Me: How did the Audubon Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative get started?
Alison: At Audubon we were watching it (sagebrush ecosystem) getting dissected; kind of a death by a thousand cuts. I started my master’s on the Pinedale Mesa in 1998. Mine was the first study on the Mesa and I could literally get in my truck, go out there and not see a person for a day and wander around and get lost in the sagebrush. Today I can’t face going out there… Brian Rutledge (Audubon Regional Director) came on about six years ago – We started the sagebrush initiative for our grave concern over this ecosystem and how it was being managed in light of energy development. We started it to save the sagebrush ecosystem, but not to stop any energy development, just to develop it responsibly and have something left when we are done.
Me: How do we know the sage grouse population?
Alison: The best way that we have now, which is absolutely not the perfect way, is by lek counts (a lek is a mating ground). You go out in the spring and count the number of males on the lek. The problem with it is – it’s the best we have – that it’s not the best way to estimate populations. Sometimes we miss leks. Sage grouse are secretive birds. They lek in open areas in the spring, but many of these leks are remote, so no matter how hard we try we don’t get a great estimation on how many birds are out there, because we may miss that lek, some leks may be higher, some may be lower. That’s how we estimate population numbers. We’d like to improve it, but it’s a tough bird to get to. Their best defense is camouflage, so when you’re dealing with something like it’s hard to estimate unless they’re out in the open at a certain time of year.
Me: When you count males, how do you determine the number of females?
Alison: You extrapolate the number of females from counting males.
Me: And the best estimate is 200,000-250,000 birds?
Me: Sage grouse are an umbrella species and I think of them as part of the spirit of the sage. You talked about their secretive nature and camouflage as their best defense – can you just talk a little bit about #1 sage grouse and their life in sage, and #2 their role as an umbrella species?
Alison: Sure, sage grouse are your true sagebrush obligate. They spend their entire life in the sagebrush – You’ll hear people say except in the summertime when they’re down in the riparian areas; however, you’ll notice that when they’re down in the riparian areas in the summertime, they’re never far from sage because they use it for cover and for roosting at night. So, no matter what time of year, you’re going to find sage grouse in the sage. There are many little micro-ecosystems within the sage that the sage grouse need at various time of the year. In the winter, they usually move to taller denser sage, so number one, they can get to the sage to eat it above the snow, and number two, they have some cover and places to go at night to roost and thermo regulate a little bit. Nesting is totally different. Usually, you hear that 80% of the birds nest within a 3-4 mile radius of the lek. So, within that, those hens are looking for very site-specific requirements for their nesting – they require the bigger sage for nesting. They can’t nest under a small bush. They require a decent under story, meaning grasses and forbs that have been left from the year before because they’re nesting pretty early in the year. They need that cover, screening cover from the ground to the top branch of the sagebrush bush, in order to seal their nests. Moving on to early brood rearing, the chicks hatch out and hit the ground running, although they base their diet in the first ten days on a lot of insects. So, they need more open spaces close to nesting habitat. The chicks can’t move that far, that quickly. Again summer range is the riparian area, with sagebrush close by. Then you move back into winter. On the surface, it seems like all they need is sagebrush. It’s not that simple. They’re a very complicated bird, with very distinct and complicated habitat requirements; which unfortunately, makes management difficult. Management of the bird is difficult when it comes to habitat restoration and habitat reclamation. Sagebrush is very, very, very hard to reclaim, it is slow growing, has a huge taproot, and depends on winter snows in order to make the shrub grow and reproduce. So, it is very complicated and not a very easy thing to manage, but certainly not impossible. We just need to get a better handle on that.
Me: Please Explain what Umbrella Species Means.
Alison: If you manage for that species, you are managing for many others. That’s why we chose the Greater sage grouse for our flagship species. Audubon is really trying to conserve the sagebrush ecosystem, not just the sage grouse. But, by making the sage grouse our flagship species, we can help the sagebrush ecosystem on a landscape level and address a lot of needs of other species – sage sparrow, Brewer’s sparrow, sage thrasher, pygmy rabbits…there are a lot of species that move through the sagebrush at different times of year – a lot of our bird species nest there during the summertime and move out during winter. Nonetheless many of our bird species rely on sagebrush for nesting and brood-rearing habitat; as well as winter habitat for our big game. So, if we can help the sagebrush, we can help the other species that depend on the sagebrush, either full-time, or in certain times of the year. I mentioned one other thing on a landscape level; as the sage grouse move through the sage in different eco-zones, they really use a large part of the landscape. Again, by saving tiny islands of sagebrush, you are not going to be saving sage grouse and probably many other species. We need to start thinking on a broader scale and on a landscape scale. The birds may not migrate in the traditional way that you think of other birds migrating – birds that fly to Arizona or Mexico, but they do move around quite a bit and they need large, contiguous blocks of sage. That’s why we picked the sage grouse as our flagship species – they do require large blocks of land, which brings us to a landscape level management strategy.
Me: Audubon has successfully implemented and gained support for a core habitat strategy. Can you talk about that? Second, how can we implement that strategy across state lines through the eleven state sagebrush sea of the Intermountain West?
Alison: Audubon works with state and Federal agencies, with industry, with landowners to help create the core sagebrush strategy. It means there is always give and take. When we came up with the sagebrush initiative to conserve the sagebrush ecosystem, we knew that we would not get it all (protect). And we were willing to accept that, as long as we could help save the bird as well as the ecosystem. That’s kind of where the core habitat strategy came from. We looked on a statewide basis where the heaviest concentrations of the grouse were, and we drew a circle around them and said, “all-right we need to protect these populations of sage grouse.” Wyoming has the best populations of sage grouse in the Western US. We are the stronghold in the West. So, if they go south here, they aint gonna make it.” With the core strategy, we were saying “not here. If you’re going to develop here, we need really strict and stringent rules, so that we can hang on to these populations.” Outside of the core is a little bit more lenient, although not without restrictions, not without considerations for grouse. There are grouse outside of the core, just not in the numbers that are in the core. We looked at the lek data to estimate our populations and said this where we need to conserve, put buffers around it. Part of the problem was, when you look out at Wyoming, all you see is sagebrush in many parts of the state. We needed a focus; we needed to say, “This is what we need to conserve from industry down to the landowners.” The core strategy gave some focus as to where to develop, where not to develop, how to develop responsibly. Taking it across state lines has already begun. Wyoming was the template – we wanted to prove how well this could work so that, again saving Wyoming would be great, but that’s not going to solve our problem either. The other 11 states are looking at the core area strategy in Wyoming and we’re developing that to determine where core areas are in the other states and where we need to focus – not that we throw away the other parts, but the focus should be on where the best of the best is. And then those states are hopefully going to work with Audubon and other entities to adopt the core area strategy. The coup de grace is when we all come together and create a management plan on a landscape level. We need to start thinking as a group instead of state by state. Everyone (stakeholders) has their different opinions, everyone has their different management plans, but we need to put our differences aside, so we can start managing on a landscape level, conserving the ecosystem, therefore our wildlife, therefore our future.
Me: What will the American West Look Like In Ten years?
Alison: It depends. I can’t tell you that, I don’t know. I can tell you that if we continue with the Drill Baby Drill, mindset, the West will be dramatically different. No longer will we be able to rely on ecotourism and hunting and some of our biggest economic pieces, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I think our lives will change dramatically from the Wild West where people go to escape their daily lives.
I think it will become a kind of a monoculture across the U.S. Our wildlife will suffer and therefore our health and our daily lives will suffer. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think the American public is waking up, we now have a green movement, and I think people are starting to realize how we need to manage – on a landscape scale and start thinking bigger and outside the box.
With the core area strategy and Audubon pushing very hard from the policy front, driven by our science, I think we have a chance. I don’t think I’d be in this arena if we didn’t have a chance. I think we’re going to be successful, I don’t think we’ll get everything we want, but I think that we will have places left where we can go and look out on the landscape and say “this is what out great grandfathers, our great, great grandfathers saw when they came across the West, and see what drew them here. That’s extremely important, whether people realize it or not.
So, I’m very optimistic. The American public needs to put pressure, and keep putting pressure on the government to conserve these open spaces and get away from Drill Baby Drill. Not that we don’t develop, but we think about it. We can develop and we can develop responsibly because we need energy, but we also need those wild spaces. We need the wildlife! Because if we wipe out our natural resources, not only is it just a shame that we don’t have it anymore, our health suffers, our well-being and our children suffer. I think people understand that and I hope that in ten years our West is in better shape than it is now – that we have more of a sense of how and where we want to conserve and preserve and how to rehabilitate our sagebrush ecosystem and therefore, the American West.