Dennis Sun, owner of the Sun Ranch west of Casper, Wyo. and publisher/owner of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup, is making his ranch friendlier for a small bird that he can neither sell nor hunt. That’s because he wanted to help ensure that the sage grouse doesn’t get listed as an endangered species.
The sage grouse is a ground-dwelling bird native to the sagebrush ecosystem of the American West. Once numbering 16 million, it has dwindled to as few as 200,000 birds. About 40 percent of all sage grouse are found in Wyoming.
Through the Sage Grouse Initiative, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service works with partners and ranchers to improve habitat for the bird, which is at risk for listing through the Endangered Species Act.
The Sun Ranch, with windswept hills and abundant sagebrush, provides good habitat for wintering sage grouse. And as far back as Sun can remember, the birds have wintered in certain valleys on the ranch along with antelope. Over 600 sage grouse were recently counted on the ranch.
To create even more habitat for the birds, Sun used financial and technical assistance from NRCS to incorporate conservation practices. He added two miles of fence reflectors to the existing five-strand barbed wire fences. These reflectors have been shown to reduce sage grouse deaths by making the fences visible so the birds don’t fly into them. He also incorporated escape ramps into his stock tanks, which allow sage grouse and other animals that fall into the tanks to easily get out again.
Funds from the Sage Grouse Initiative also help Sun with range improvements. In the past 10 years, he has implemented many such improvements, including five solar-powered water wells, streambank restoration, invasive weed management and over 20 miles of new fencing to divide large pastures for grazing management. These practices have helped provide water for both livestock and wildlife and also improved the condition of the range for the sage grouse and other wildlife.
This type of habitat is critical for the sage grouse as it provides cover from predators. Increased forage for other wildlife and cattle means that they are less likely to damage sage grouse wintering areas.
The success of the Sage Grouse Initiative is dependent on individual producers like Sun. But the initiative also relies on partnerships between groups such as the NRCS, the Bureau of Land Management and Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
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