Date: May 9, 2017
Source: University of Washington
The sage grouse is an exceptionally showy bird and an icon of the American West. But its sagebrush habitat is disappearing, and there is debate over how best to protect the populations in an increasingly developed landscape.
A new study by University of Washington, state and federal researchers analyzed sage grouse in Eastern Washington and showed a surprisingly large benefit from a federal program that subsidizes farmers to plant year-round grasses and native shrubs instead of crops. Although the program was adopted for many different reasons, the study finds it is probably the reason that sage grouse still live in portions of Washington's Columbia Basin.
"Without these lands, our models predict that we would lose about two thirds of the species' habitat, and that the sage grouse would go extinct in two of three subpopulations," said first author Andrew Shirk, a research scientist with the UW's Climate Impacts Group. The study will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management.
The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was established in 1985. It is a voluntary federal program that pays farmers to plant agricultural land with environmentally beneficial vegetation for 10- to 15-year contracts. The program's goals include improving water quality, reducing soil erosion and boosting wildlife habitat.
Of the roughly 24 million acres planted through the program in the United States, about 1.4 million acres are in Eastern Washington. The fields are planted with native shrubs and perennial grasses that provide cover for sage grouse and other animals.
"From the outset, it was envisioned that the CRP program would be good for wildlife," Shirk said. "But I don't think anyone expected that it would be this valuable. Our results show CRP isn't a substitute for native sagebrush, but mature CRP fields nearby augment native habitat and have had a tremendous positive impact -- it's a wildlife conservation success story."