By Published On: April 17, 2020

Back from the Brink

Clear Lake National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern California is comprised of 20,000 acres of open water surrounded by over 26,000 acres of upland bunchgrass, sagebrush, and juniper habitat. Photo by Chelsea Sink.

A microcosm of sage grouse conservation on Clear Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Imagine a once-booming frontier town bustling with activity. Then, the railroad moved on or the gold seam dried up and only a few lonely residents remained on the dusty streets. A similar scene played out in 2005 at the Clear Lake National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in northern California, except the main residents were a different kind of sagebrush inhabitant: the Greater sage grouse. 

On a peninsula known as “the U” that extends into the Clear Lake NWR, an isolated population of sage grouse convene on their historic mating grounds, known as leks. This refuge and northeast California once had over 50 active leks. By the early 1990s, this peninsula had the last known active lek in the region with a total of 60 males. As the downward spiral continued, only six males remained by 2005. These desperately low counts spurred a unique recovery effort that brought together landowners, local conservationists, and land managers.

Located in the Klamath Basin, not far from where President Theodore Roosevelt designated Lower Klamath as the first designated waterfowl refuge in 1908, and hemmed in by sagebrush hills, Clear Lake sits among an extensive historical wetland system that attracts millions of migratory waterfowl and waterbirds. The locals in the Klamath Basin were motivated by the plight of the sage grouse and established a sage grouse working group to pool resources, share information, and get projects on the ground. The group’s members included local ranchers as well as employees from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Lava Beds-Butte Valley Resource Conservation District, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Nevada Department of Wildlife, Oregon State University, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and the U.S. Forest Service.

“We wanted to see a healthy population of sage grouse here because that means the land is healthy, as well as not having extreme land management restrictions that come with an endangered species,” said Mike Byrne, rancher and member of the sage grouse working group. 

Bringing in reinforcements

The working group came to the conclusion that recovering sage grouse would require translocating birds and restoring habitat across land ownership boundaries. Their goal was to bolster the existing sage grouse population and increase its genetic diversity by bringing in and releasing 150 birds, over the next decade, from various locations in Oregon and Nevada.

With advances in the understanding of grouse translocation thanks to the work on Clear Lake refuge, researchers and managers are now considering translocating full broods in the hopes that they will stay in the area more readily. Photo by John Beckstrand.

“We’ve learned a ton about translocating birds; what works, as well as what doesn’t,” said John Vradenburg, supervisory biologist with the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, who has been involved with these recovery efforts since 2015. “We’ve also learned how crucial it is to have people at the table who are willing to think beyond their fencelines and beyond the Basin.”

The working group’s efforts have achieved success. That small group of sage grouse from 2005 is now roughly 200 birds and growing. The target population is 500 individuals.

“A translocated bird has less than 50 percent likelihood of nesting in the year they are translocated,” said John Beckstrand, a refuge wildlife biologist. “But if she survives into the next year, she will often settle down and produce a nest.” 

With advances in the understanding of grouse translocation science, researchers and managers are now considering translocating full broods in hopes they adapt to the new site more readily, nest sooner, and have a better likelihood of surviving and contributing to the population. But biologists know that all these efforts are moot if the health and integrity of sagebrush habitat is in question.

Keeping the Core

“One of the biggest limiting factors that’s preventing continued growth in the sage grouse population is the quality of the habitat,” Beckstrand said. “We can continue to put birds out but this sagebrush landscape is experiencing significant juniper encroachment, as well as other threats, and it’s so different from what it was like when sage grouse populations thrived here.” 

Expansion of conifers (like juniper) into sagebrush ecosystems is degrading habitats important to wildlife and people. These trees alter plant communities, reduce flows in natural springs, create perches for raptors that prey on grouse, and disrupt the open sagebrush landscape necessary for sage grouse and other shrubland wildlife to survive. In response, partners in the Clear Lake area have used mechanical treatments to remove junipers on over 40,000 acres on public and private land and have additional acres slated for treatment.

“When the conifer removal started happening the creeks began flowing better,” Byrne said. “Water is a big issue here. It’s crucial for the wildlife. Lost River and Short-nosed sucker are the fish species of concern in these creeks. The improved hydrology is also important to our ranching operation.”

In 2019, the human-caused Tucker Fire burned important nesting and brood rearing habitat for sage grouse on Clear Lake NWR. Photo by Chelsea Sink.

Although integral to the historic sage-steppe landscape, more frequent fires around Clear Lake are also a major challenge for sage grouse habitat restoration. Invasive annual grasses like cheatgrass and medusahead enter the sagebrush understory. Then, when fire occurs, these invasive grasses serve as fine fuels that allow fire to spread quickly. Unlike sagebrush plants which take 10-50 years to mature here, invasive grasses grow quickly, taking away precious resources from native plants and contributing to the cycle of larger and more frequent fires.

In 2019, the human-caused Tucker Fire burned into the boundary of Clear Lake NWR and damaged important nesting and brood-rearing habitat. 

“Some of the best sagebrush in that area burned,” said Chelsea Sink, an Oregon State University master’s student who is studying sage grouse population dynamics in this area. “It’s typically a green, productive spot well into the summer months. You look up on the hills and it’s all black, though we can see the sage grouse are still using the area.”

Sink’s studies show the sage grouse are still utilizing this burned area despite the less than prime habitat available. With the loss of sagebrush cover, hens and chicks will be at higher risk of predation this coming summer. Key food sources, such as insects and succulent grasses, previously provided by the wet meadow habitat adjacent to the sagebrush will be in limited supply for chicks in their early days.

“Add this habitat loss to all the other threats these sage grouse face, and this population is going to slowly keep getting squeezed from all sides,” Sink said.

A Microcosm of the West

These threats to sage grouse and their habitat needs are not unique to the northeastern corner of California. Rangeland fire, invasive annual grasses, predators, urban growth (and associated pressures), and land conversion to other uses comprise the suite of issues facing sage grouse rangewide, according to Christian Hagen, a professor and researcher at Oregon State University studying prairie and rangeland grouse species.

“Clear Lake is a case study of implementing projects and resources for a conservation-reliant species,” Hagen said. “By doing the habitat work as well as palliative care of population augmentation and research, this knowledge is informing conservation across the West.”

Here, the magic combination for recovering a sage grouse population includes lessons learned from translocation efforts, high-quality habitat availability, decades of collaboration by the local working group, implementing conservation and restoration projects that maintain a full life-cycle habitat base for birds, and researching emerging challenges. The translocation success at Clear Lake refuge can help managers in other states but it does not translate verbatim, according to Hagen. It all comes down to the local people and partnerships who make lasting conservation happen. 

“Sage grouse are a hot topic but not a controversial topic in the area, like some issues are,” Sink said. “On rangelands, there are enough resources to go around and what is good management for these birds is often good for cows. People in this area grew up with sage grouse and want to continue to see them around.”

Refuges and private landowners are continuing to face increasing challenges related to water and invasive weeds. This sage grouse story remains an ongoing example of conservation success as a result of hard-won partnerships.

“One thing I can tell other people working on sage grouse elsewhere around the West is that what we are doing is good for everything in the county,” said Byrne. “This work is all for bird habitat but it’s good for others, too. It’s a win-win for all perspectives if you can take care of the habitat.”

Intermountain West Joint Venture’s Work on Water and Sagebrush

If there’s a contrast that most characterizes the Intermountain West, it’s the region’s miles of dry sagebrush hills intertwined with the “green ribbons” of working wet meadows and riparian habitats. Wet and dry, sagebrush and water: both conjure up distinctly different initial reactions, yet both are intricately connected and critical to wildlife, agriculture, and people across the region. Through the integration of its Partnering to Conserve Sagebrush Rangelands and Water 4 efforts, the IWJV works to conserve both important habitats, and thus the landscapes and character of the Intermountain West.