Scientific Research Shows How To Reduce The Risk Of Crop Cultivation To Protect Sage Grouse

A new scientific study published in Biological Conservation explains how to reduce the threat of converting native sagebrush habitat into crops. In eastern Montana, northeast Wyoming and the Dakotas, the sagebrush sea is increasingly threatened by cropland conversion, the main threat to Greater sage-grouse.

A new research paper, co-authored by University of Montana PhD student Joe Smith and Sage Grouse Initiative science advisor David Naugle, compiles research on sage grouse mating leks in the northeastern portion of the bird’s range. It overlays those lek areas with data showing the landscapes most at-risk for conversion to cropland.

Smith’s paper finds that 96% of active leks are located in landscapes with less than 15% of cropland. For each ten percentage increase in cropland, scientists anticipate an associated 54% decrease in lek density. These findings will help our partners prioritize where to invest conservation dollars in order to protect prime sage grouse habitat on private agricultural lands.

“This is the first step in dealing with the biggest threat to sage grouse in the northeastern part of their range,” says Joe Smith, wildlife biologist and author of the study.

In particular, this research will help target conservation easements in Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. Groups like The Nature Conservancy, the Montana Land Reliance, and the Montana Sage Grouse Stewardship Fund are already using the associated cultivation risk map to pinpoint working lands that would be good candidates for this incentive-based tool.

The cultivation risk data, available for free on SGI’s web app, predicts where future breakout of new cultivation could occur based on soils, climate, and topography of existing croplands. This model was developed by Jeffrey Evans, a landscape ecologist withThe Nature Conservancy and affiliate faculty at University of Wyoming.

Once native sage-steppe is converted, it’s very difficult and very costly to restore habitat. Luckily, this research predicts that investing $100 million in strategic conservation easements can prevent most habitat losses. Mapping the threat of potential crop cultivation helps put easements where sage grouse need them most, and gets the best return on investment for conservation dollars.

Read the research paper online.

Download or view the cultivation risk layer on the SGI interactive web app.

Read our Science to Solutions article “Reducing Cultivation Of Grazing Lands Conserves Sage Grouse".