Drought, Wet Meadows and Sage Grouse: A Partner Biologist’s Perspective

Top photo: Tiffany Russell and Ryan Burnett from Point Blue Conservation Science in the field at Cradle Valley. Bottom photos: Post-fire vegetation regeneration with hen sage grouse.

When people think of California, they often think of palm trees and beaches, the Golden Gate Bridge, Hollywood, or maybe Yosemite. What some don’t realize is that our diverse state contains large expanses of sagebrush habitat in its northeastern corner. This area is reminiscent of the old West: vast open landscapes, small mountain towns, sheepherders and cattlemen, and the ever-present scent of sage in the air. Within this region, on the edge of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Cascades, and the Modoc Plateau, the Greater Sage Grouse still survives at the western-most part of its range. 

I moved to Susanville in August of 2012, just after fires started in the Northern Sierras to the West and in the Skedaddle Mountains to the East. The day before, I had been helping band songbirds in a high elevation Sierra Nevada meadow, where large numbers of juvenile birds go to feed upon the highly nutritious insect populations in late summer. Smoke filled the air every day, no matter which way the wind blew. I did not know it at the time, but large swaths of sagebrush were burning through some of the best sage grouse habitat in the area.  While everyone in Susanville was huddled inside avoiding the smoke, sage grouse and their broods were reported to be seen huddling in the center of wet meadows avoiding the flames.  On either side of Lassen County, meadows were essential for the survival of wildlife during that dry and flame-filled summer. 

My position as a biologist is a partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Intermountain West Joint Venture (IWJV), and Point Blue Conservation Science (formerly PRBO Conservation Science).  I work with landowners to improve water-holding capacity and retention of mountain meadows and to improve the quality of northeastern California’s sage grouse habitat. In both sage grouse habitat and the Sierra Nevada, restoring and maintaining the health of our meadow systems can make every drop of rain or flake of snow more effective and provide more forage for livestock production and vegetation for wildlife habitat. Further, these unique wet areas provide a haven for wildlife during extreme drought and fire.

To help maintain this habitat, I am involved with a local group whose goal is to conserve the nearby Buffalo-Skedaddle Sage Grouse Population. The group includes landowners, the Bureau of Land Management, NRCS, Honey Lake Valley Resource Conservation District, University of California Cooperative Extension, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Lassen Land and Trails Trust, and other interested community members. We are in the midst of developing a new strategy aimed at engaging landowners and natural resource professionals in a targeted ‘lek team’ approach. Starting with priority lek areas, smaller groups of stakeholders will look at the habitat used by each population, including meadow and spring habitat that provides essential feed for young chicks. Working within the areas these populations use, we hope to engage ranchers, farmers, and other private and public land managers to improve the soil quality, water resources, forage production, and wildlife habitat. Some tools we plan to use are young juniper reduction, grazing management, grade stabilization in down-cut meadows, and weed removal.  Funding is provided by NRCS through the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) and by other conservation partners.

Many parts of California still provide sanctuary for wildlife, despite the large swaths of development that occupy its southern and bay area counties.  I’m now in my second year in Lassen County, and have become captivated by the wide-open landscapes, the smell of sagebrush, and the people that live here. We hope to continue to help the sage grouse survive and once again flourish in this very unique section of California, while supporting the people who live here along the way.

Editor’s Note: Tiffany recently joined the SGI Strategic Watershed Action Team (SWAT), managed by the IWJV in partnership with NRCS, through an innovative cost-sharing agreement between SGI, Point Blue, and California NRCS. She’ll continue her great work in Lassen County but will receive some additional support and technical training via the SGI SWAT. Welcome to the SWAT Team, Tiffany!

Photos by Tiffany Russell

Read these other articles in the 2014 Summer Newsletter:

The O’Haco Ranch, a Place for Family, Livestock and Birds By Dominic Barrett, Arizona State Conservation Partnership Co-Chair

A Final Puzzle Piece: Completing Montana’s Smith Lake Wetland Complex By Hannah Ryan, IWJV Communications Specialist

Drought, Wet Meadows, and Sage Grouse, a Partner Biologist’s Perspective By Tiffany Russell, Northeast California Partner Biologist, Point Blue Conservation Science

Sage Decisions: A New Tool for Sage-Steppe Management By Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory Staff

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