Don’t bother asking rancher Jay Tanner the first time he saw the mating dance of a greater sage grouse. He can’t remember.
The bird is as ingrained in his brain as the landscape of the Della Ranch in Grouse Creek that he runs with his brothers.
“It is just something I grew up with. Asking when I saw my first sage grouse is kind of like asking when I saw my first sunrise,” Tanner said.
For more than 140 years, the Tanner family has worked the land and run cattle on private and federal lands in western Box Elder County. The sage grouse has been a part of the northwestern Utah landscape they cherish, and also make a living on, from the start.
They don’t want to see either go away.
Neither does the federal government, which is continuing to work toward a September 2015 Endangered Species List announcement about the greater sage grouse.
Tanner has been pitching his conservation message to fellow ranchers and landowners for years. He attended the International Sage Grouse Forum in Salt Lake City Thursday, where federal and state officials, along with conservation and wildlife advocacy groups, are reviewing regional efforts to keep the greater sage grouse from ending up on the list.
Officials from the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert all acknowledged that involvement of private landowners like Tanner are key in keeping the birds from making the list.
Herbert used the example of the Tanners to make the case for Utah’s unprecedented campaign to discourage listing the sage grouse as threatened. Last May, state lawmakers paid a lobbyist $2 million to write a report on sage grouse that they intend to use in the campaign.
The governor told more than 300 audience members that he doesn’t like the “one-size-fits all” philosophy that comes with a species being listed under the Endangered Species Act.
“States should take the lead in trying to solve their unique problems. Looking at Washington D.C. and the federal government to solve problems is a false hope, at least in most cases,” Herbert said. “We don’t trust ranchers and farmers to make the decision to manage their backyards.
“Nobody knows the landscape better than we do,” the governor said. “I trust the people.”
As many as 500,000 greater sage grouse live on plains across the west. Utah is estimated to be home to about 8 percent of those birds. Statewide, counts of male birds at 200 monitored leks increased by 40 percent this year, but counts vary widely depending on conditions.
Over time, the Tanners realized things they could do to help sage grouse, and other native species of wildlife and plants, would also put weight on the 1,000 cattle they typically run.
Five years ago, the Della Ranch started participating in a voluntary cost-sharing improvement program funded by the Sage Grouse Initiative. The Tanners cleared roughly 9,000 acres of junipers, identified sage grouse nesting areas to avoid, and installed water developments for wildlife and cattle.
The juniper removal, Tanner said, was key. There were areas where the trees had taken over. They play a role in the Great Basin landscape, but had been controlled historically by wildfire, which allowed other native species that wildlife rely on to have a turn.
“We just don’t allow those things anymore,” Tanner said. “We have to do things to get the land back to a more natural state.”
So the junipers were removed and the land reseeded.
“It has been amazing to see the response,” he said. “Once the trees were gone and sunlight and water could get there, we saw the native plants flourish. It was like opening a new grocery store with all kinds of wildlife using the area.”
In 2011, the family received the National Cattlemen’s Association’s environmental stewardship award.
Tanner says he has seen a difference in the bird population on his ranch.
“We have a good population of sage grouse in our area. A lot depends on the years. But we probably have as good a population as there is in the state,” Tanner said. “I like to see native wildlife on my property. It is important to me and it is also an indicator to me that things are functioning properly on our land.”
Noreen Walsh, regional director of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mountain-Prairie Region, visited the Della Ranch and was impressed with the results of the Tanners’ voluntary and co-funded efforts.
“I got to see how they are protecting some of the best habitat for sage grouse in Utah. I could see the care and conviction and the pride behind the work they do — the living they are making and the health of the land and wildlife they will leave behind for their families,” Walsh told the audience.
Walsh pointed out that “never before have so many people come together to tackle a wildlife challenge as people have come together around greater sage grouse.”
She called the efforts “a historic campaign of conservation” and pointed out that sage grouse may be the species under the spotlight, but many more species rely on the sagebrush habitat and taking care of the grouse would help them all.
“We all share a very fundamental goal of saving the sage grouse without having to resort to the protections of the Endangered Species Act; treating the patient before it needs the emergency room,” Walsh said.
Tanner agrees and Gov. Herbert has his back.
“I don’t want to see the bird listed. I’m hoping my fellow landowners in Utah and other states are showing voluntary conservation has had a great impact and we don’t have to regulate to be good land stewards,” Tanner said.
Herbert noted the federal listing of the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest as an example of the Endangered Species Act being “counterproductive” because it limited local support.
His joke about spotted owl tasting like chicken drew both gasps and a few laughs from the crowd.
While Tanner may not remember the first time he saw sage grouse strutting their stuff, one memory does stick out.
He was driving by a community dance hall in the small town of Naf in southeastern Idaho near the Utah border. It was much too early in the morning for the young singles to be gathered for a social event, but nevertheless he spotted two practicing their moves.
“There were two sage grouse strutting right in front of the dance hall,” Tanner said. “It gave me a laugh to see them there. I sure wish I had taken a picture.”