The Glasgow Courier - Serving Proudly As The Voice Of Valley County Since 1913

By Ron Stoneberg
Managing Management 

The Disconnect Between Science and Reality


I recently had the privilege of visiting with a couple of ranchers from near the Grasslands National Park (NP) in Saskatchewan, Canada. I heard the amazing story that when cattle were removed from the park, the resident wildlife also left. The decline in grassland dependent birds was very noticeable. In particular, one rancher observed the sage grouse left when the cattle were removed. This rancher was subsequently contracted by the park to reintroduce his cattle to these over-rested pastures. Amazingly, the sage grouse returned to the area grazed by the cattle! The rancher noted the males reestablished a lek, but in a different location. To most of us this is a fascinating experiment demonstrating that grazing is essential on the Northern Great Plains to maintain the native grassland biodiversity. You would think the scientists and bureaucrats would have jumped on this. Wrong!

I obtained a copy of the Grasslands National Park of Canada 2010 Management Plan. The plan stated, “[f]rom 1984 to 2002, domestic grazing was terminated on rangelands that were acquired by Parks Canada.” The 2002 management plan outlined a role for grazing in the park. While bison was the preferred species, domestic livestock were to be used where practicable. What justification do you think they used to return livestock grazing? Wrong! They proposed grazing, “as a way to control invasive plant species” and “its possible use in the control of plant species that are not native to the park.” The closest they came to addressing the issue of grassland birds was when they mentioned the superintendent now had the authority, “to issue grazing permits for domestic animals for the purpose of achieving ecological integrity goals for the park.” For some reason the park bureaucrats were unable to admit that grazing was beneficial to grassland birds. So how did the scientists do?

In 2009, a study of sage grouse by a University of Montana masters student was completed. One chapter of his study addressed the sage grouse in the Milk River Basin (MRB) of northeast Montana and south-central Saskatchewan. His research area included the east block of the Grassland NP where the rancher had observed the sage grouse response to cattle grazing. The researcher included a graph showing a 60 percent decline in the Saskatchewan sage grouse population from 2000 to 2004. A 10 percent increase was noted in 2005. This population dynamic roughly coincided with the removal and subsequent reintroduction of cattle. However, this aspect was not mentioned in the thesis. The study was designed to determine if vital rates such as nest, chick and adult survival were responsible for the population decline. He found, “[v]egetative features and individual demographic vital rates do not appear to be limiting population growth of sage-grouse in the MRB.” A West Nile virus outbreak in 2007 did result in considerable mortality. It is unfortunate he did not address the influence of grazing on the sage grouse population.

The author of a study of grassland birds in northern Phillips and Valley counties (just south of the Canadian Grasslands NP) was quoted in an article in the March-April 2016 issue of the Montana Outdoors magazine. Her conclusion was that soil type and precipitation had more impact on grassland birds than grazing. While both her and the BLM wildlife biologist quoted in the article stressed managed grazing was preferred, neither mentioned the impact the lack of grazing in the Grasslands NP had on the grassland birds.

Focusing on one (or a few) species over a couple of years of intensive study, using the new high tech instruments, can lead to amazing results. However, the people that live year after year in these environments also have valuable information and insights to offer. It is unfortunate the bureaucrats and scientists do not take advantage of this wealth of information.


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