TOPIC 6 The Eastern Range: Case Studies


There are several case studies and recommendations for the eastern range. Explore the case studies and recommendations below.

East-Central Montana

This case study explores examples of applying eastern range tools and concepts in East-Central Montana. This area (Chambers et al. 2016, Figure 36) is characterized by:

  • Primarily cool and summer moist bordering on dry soil temperature and moisture regimes.
  • Mostly privately owned.
  • Large cropland areas exist adjacent to Priority Areas for Conservation with moderate to high Greater Sage-Grouse populations; cultivation risk along with existing cropland cover maps can be used to help identify areas that have not yet been plowed that may be at high risk of future conversion due to suitable climate, soils, and topography.

Areas supporting high breeding habitat should be targeted for conservation easements or term leases to keep native rangelands intact. USDA and state-based initiatives may provide incentives for transitioning expiring Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) or other cultivated lands to rangelands that support perennial plant communities. The Sage-Grouse Initiative (SGI) Cultivation Risk layer (see also Smith et al. 2016) along with existing cropland cover maps can be used to help identify areas that have not yet been plowed but may be at high risk of future conversion due to suitable climate, soils, and topography.


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Figure 36: Click on map for a printable PDF version.

Following stress or disturbance, these areas are susceptible to a variety of invaders such as Russian Knapweed (Centaurea repens) and cheatgrass, and Early Detection-Rapid Response can be used in all areas with high habitat probabilities and breeding bird concentrations to limit establishment of nonnative invasive plants. Introduced grasses such as crested wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum) can spread into and dominate sagebrush ecosystems and prevent establishment of sagebrush and other native species, and seeding these species following disturbances is not recommended. Livestock management to maintain a balance of native perennial grasses (cool and warm season species) and forbs will allow natural regeneration of sagebrush and increase competitive ability with nonnative invasive plants.

Recommendations: Montana

This section provides information about habitat management guidelines for Montana. For more details, please visit the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks website.

Sage-Grouse and habitat Issues requiring conservation action in Montana (Montana Sage-Grouse Work Group 2005) include:

  • Fire Management. Benefits, detriments, and relative frequency of fire on sage-grouse habitats are subjects of disagreement. Use of prescribed fire in sagebrush can result in a net loss of sagebrush and concerns those desiring to maintain a mature sagebrush community. Some land managers consider fire an effective tool to manage sagebrush stands with dense sagebrush cover and suppressed herbaceous cover. Both prescribed and wildfires can have cumulative effects on sagebrush habitat and wildlife species that depend on it.
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Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Sage Grouse Habitat: Click the image for a printable verison.

  • Grazing Management. Many western rangelands were over-stocked with livestock in the late-1800s and early 1900s, thus altering the composition and productivity of some sagebrush and other vegetative communities. The effects of livestock on sage-grouse may be positive, negative, or neutral depending on the specific grazing prescription and on the ecological site. To minimize the potential impact of removing important understory vegetation, flexible grazing management programs need to be planned and implemented while considering the needs of sage-grouse.
  • Noxious Weed Management. Noxious weeds have spread across Montana at an unprecedented rate. Landowners/managers have a statutory responsibility to develop management plans for the treatment of noxious weeds on land they own and/or manage, although the magnitude of weed infestations often prevents appropriate and timely treatment. Noxious weeds displace more desirable native plant species and cause significant adverse biological and economic effects by reducing productivity of healthy rangeland. Chemical control of weeds is efficient although it poses some short-term toxicological risk to sage-grouse and other wildlife. Reduction of forbs important to sage grouse during brood rearing could have more serious consequences, with the magnitude of these effects dependent on the scale of treatment.
  • Vegetation. Past management of rangelands, including plowing, has altered the density, structure, composition, and presence of sagebrush communities and has in some cases created a variety of conditions that do not meet the desired condition described for sage-grouse seasonal needs. Restoring or enhancing sage-grouse habitats requires diverse strategies. Disagreements often arise regarding the ecological role, or successional relationships, of “old” or “decadent” stands of sagebrush, the need to manipulate sagebrush communities, method of control, and extent of treatment.

Montana Sage Grouse Work Group. 2005. Management plan and conservation strategies for sage grouse in Montana – final. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Helena, MT.

Southwestern Wyoming

This case study explores examples of applying eastern range tools and concepts in Southwestern Wyoming. This area (Chambers et al. 2016, Figure 40) is characterized by:

  • Mountainous terrain with sagebrush ecosystems that range from cold and summer moist to warm and dry bordering on summer moist.
  • Surface land management is primarily USFS, BLM, and private.
  • The area has wide-spread oil and gas development along with high Greater Sage-Grouse concentration areas.

In areas with high habitat probabilities and breeding concentration centers, avoiding development and fragmentation where feasible through implementation of appropriate state and federal policies is recommended (Resistance and Resilience Matrix cells 1C, 2C, 3C). Reducing energy and other transport corridors as well as vehicle access where possible can also minimize fragmentation. Exurban residential development is also fragmenting habitats and conservation easements can be an important tool for ameliorating this threat.


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Figure 40: Click on map for a printable PDF version.

For disturbances that remove vegetation and cause soil disturbance such as well pads and roads, impacts can be minimized and mitigated through activities such as top soil banking, using certified weed-free (including annual bromes) seed mixes, appropriate seeding technologies, and monitoring. In low resilience and resistance areas, multiple interventions may be required to restore sagebrush habitat.

Because of the wide range of soil temperature and moisture regimes, the area is susceptible to numerous nonnative invasive plants and proactive weed management is recommended in all areas with high habitat suitability and breeding concentration centers. The spread of large weed infestations from areas with lower habitat probabilities can be prevented to protect higher quality habitat. In addition, numerous introduced invaders occur in this area, and seeding these species for reclamation or restoration of sagebrush habitat can be avoided, especially in cooler and moister areas where native species establish well.

Livestock grazing strategies can be designed to maintain or improve the condition of native plant communities and decrease nonnative invasive species. Strategies that include periodic rest during the critical growth period, especially for cool season grasses, can increase native species and minimize invasion. This strategy is particularly important in areas with low resilience and resistance. Given climate warming, management aimed at restoring understory grasses and forbs has the potential to increase resilience and resistance to both drought and fire.


Recommendations: Wyoming

This section provides information about habitat management guidelines for Wyoming. For more details, please visit the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Recommendations (Bohne et al. 2007):

  • Habitat treatments (prescribed fire, chemical, and mechanical) may result in some short-term habitat losses, but should eventually produce better quality habitat for the sage-grouse and other sagebrush obligate species.
  • These treatments may result in some short-term sage-grouse population declines, the extent of which may be difficult to quantify. However, any proposed vegetation management plan should attempt to quantify those adverse impacts. Some decline in grouse numbers in the short term may be acceptable if long-term increases in productive sage-grouse habitat will likely occur.
  • Habitat treatments in sage-grouse habitats should include post-treatment grazing practices designed to enhance vegetative recovery and sage-grouse habitat. If post-treatment grazing management is not consistent with the goals of the proposed habitat enhancement, then the value of the proposed habitat project may be questioned and the project should be reconsidered, modified, or terminated. Monitoring post-treatment response of vegetation to habitat manipulations is essential.
  • Projects proposed in areas of fragmented habitats and in areas with substantial existing habitat loss should be constrained to a much greater degree than projects in vast areas of relatively undisturbed sagebrush habitat.

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Wyoming Sage Grouse Core Areas: Click the image for a printable verison.

Specific Wyoming Considerations (Bohne et al. 2007):

  • Treatments should be designed to thin the sagebrush canopy, remove patches of sagebrush to provide a mosaic of early seral vegetation within mature sagebrush stands, reduce the competition between mature sagebrush and the herbaceous understory, and increase the vigor, productivity, and diversity of herbaceous species (Connelly et al. 2000). Possible tools to achieve these objectives include prescribed fire, mechanical treatments, interseeding with grasses and forbs, herbicides, changes in grazing management, or some combination of these treatments (Miller and Eddleman 2000).
  • No more than 20% of the area providing nesting and early brood-rearing habitat within a two-mile (3.2 km) radius of an active lek should be treated (Connelly et al. 2000). In Wyoming big sagebrush communities, additional treatments should be deferred until treated sagebrush stands have recovered to at least 12% canopy cover (possibly in excess of 30 years). In mountain big sagebrush communities, the return interval for treatments could be as short as 15 years, but canopy cover of sagebrush should be at least 15% in the initial treatment areas before another treatment is conducted.
  • Late brood-rearing habitat is important for sage-grouse production and survival. However, the species’ requirements can usually be met by a diverse array of habitats that provide cover and foraging areas in close juxtaposition. Cover patches can be smaller, and open areas larger, in a coarse-grained vegetative mosaic, compared to what is required for good nesting and early brood-rearing habitat. Often, wet meadows, riparian areas along streams and rivers, irrigated hayfields, and alfalfa croplands are the most productive feeding areas. Treatments should be designed to maintain stands of sagebrush or mixed shrubs to provide adequate cover adjacent to feeding areas.
  • Occupied habitat that consists of Wyoming or mountain big sagebrush stands that are mesic, at higher elevations (typically greater than 7,500 feet (2286 m) in elevation), or receive annual precipitation greater than 14 inches (36 cm), generally do not provide core winter, breeding, nesting, and early brood-rearing habitat due to persistent snow-pack. These higher elevation sagebrush basins, foothill ridges, and cold desert mountains are not generally considered to be important sage-grouse winter or breeding habitats essential for maintaining viable grouse populations. In these areas, managers have more flexibility to design vegetation treatments to promote the short- and long-term ecological integrity and diversity of sagebrush-grassland communities without causing short-term adverse impacts to sage-grouse.
  • These recommendations are not intended to apply to areas where fire suppression and advanced vegetative succession have allowed sagebrush to encroach into aspen (Populus tremuloides) or mountain shrub stands, which generally lie outside important sage-grouse breeding and winter habitat. Prescribed treatments designed to restore and maintain healthy aspen and mountain shrub communities on the landscape generally do not pose a significant threat to most important sage-grouse habitats.
  • Treatments that prevent the conversion of sagebrush-grassland sites to juniper communities or woodlands dominated by Douglas fir or limber pine are encouraged because the encroachment of conifers eventually results in the loss of useable sage-grouse habitat.
  • Winter habitat may also be a limiting factor and can be variable in nature. Winter habitats may be windblown ridges with low sagebrush, steep, exposed south and west facing slopes with patches of taller sagebrush mixed with low sagebrush, swales or draws with tall sagebrush species such as basin big sagebrush, or sagebrush flats dominated by Wyoming big sagebrush where shrubs are available during severe winters and provide both forage and cover for sage-grouse. Connelly et al. (2000) recommend treating no more than 20% of the winter habitat within a 20-30 year period (or until the treated area again provides suitable winter habitat) if the habitat is degraded; burn patches should not exceed 123.6 acres (50 ha). The use of spring prescribed burns, which usually result in more fine-scale mosaics, or fire prescriptions that avoid every other draw or swale may be practical ways to achieve the desired vegetation patterns on the landscape.
  • The use of appropriate grazing systems and periodic rest may be the most effective tool available to manage the extensive low elevation xeric sagebrush-grassland habitat in Wyoming for the benefit of sage-grouse and other wildlife (Crawford et al. 1992). Some minimum recommendations for livestock grazing systems are:
    1. Avoid continuous season-long grazing or other grazing management practices that hinder the completion of plants’ life-sustaining reproductive and/or nutrient cycling processes by ensuring adequate periods of rest at the appropriate times;
    2. Provide rest and rotation of grazing to ensure seedling establishment or other necessary processes at levels sufficient to move the ecological site condition toward desired habitat objectives;
    3. Maintain an appropriate and sustainable stocking rate;
    4. In addition to providing periodic rest for pastures within a grazing system, provide opportunity for re-growth during the growing season, where possible, in pastures that are grazed. If this is not possible, then efforts should be made to ensure some level of growing season rest (early rest to ensure seed set or after use rest to allow re-growth) in the subsequent year or years;
    5. Utilization of the herbaceous component by livestock should not exceed 30-35% by weight for rangelands that need improvement and 45-50% for rangelands in good condition;
    6. Utilization of shrubs by livestock should not exceed 20% of current annual growth;
    7. Monitor to determine if vegetation/habitat objectives are being met;
    8. Adjustment of grazing elements should be made if current grazing system is not meeting objectives; and
    9. Provide a minimum of two growing seasons of rest following range treatments or wildfires to allow vegetation to recover its vigor and productivity, allow production of seed heads, and create litter to lessen soil erosion and for seedling establishment.

Bohne, J., T. Rinkes, and S. Kilpatrick. 2007. Sage-grouse habitat management guidelines for Wyoming. Unpublished Report, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Cheyenne, WY.

Connelly, J.W., M.A. Schroeder, A.R. Sands, and C.E. Braun. 2000. Guidelines for management of sage grouse populations and habitats. Wildlife Society Bulletin 28:967-985.

Crawford, J. A., M. A. Gregg, M. S. Drut, and A. K. DeLong. 1992. Habitat use by female sage grouse during the breeding season in Oregon. Final report, Bureau of Land Management, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR.

Miller, R. F., and L. L. Eddleman. 2000. Spatial and temporal changes of sage grouse habitat in the sagebrush biome. Agricultural Experiment Station Technical Bulletin 151. Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR.

Central Colorado

This case study explores examples of applying eastern range tools and concepts in Central Colorado. This area (Chambers et al. 2016, Figure 45) is characterized by:

  • Mountainous terrain with sagebrush ecosystems that range from cold and moist to warm and dry bordering on summer moist.
  • Surface land management is primarily BLM, USFS, and private.
  • This area has high Gunnison Sage-Grouse breeding habitat probabilities with relatively large breeding concentration centers and is threatened by conifer expansion.

In areas with high habitat probabilities that occur adjacent to breeding concentration centers or could increase connectivity, management activities may include: (1) targeted conifer removal in early to mid-phase (Phase I and II) stands to maintain or increase shrub/perennial herbaceous cover and decrease fuel loads, and (2) targeted conifer removal in later phase (Phase III) stands to decrease possibility of high severity fire. However, relatively warm and dry areas with low Resilience and Resistance may not recover in a reasonable amount of time and may be susceptible to invasion by nonnative annual grasses and other weeds. These areas may be treated where they have the potential to increase habitat and connectivity, but they should either have sufficient perennial native vegetation to promote recovery or they should be seeded after treatment. Post-treatment seeding or post-fire rehabilitation in low resilience and resistance areas may require more than one intervention for restoration success.


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Figure 45: Click on map for a printable PDF version.

In areas with lower Resilience and Resistance and high to moderate breeding habitat probabilities, large, contiguous areas of sagebrush with intact understories are a high priority for conservation. In these areas, emphasis is on maintaining or increasing habitat conditions by minimizing stressors and disturbance. Appropriately managing livestock and recreational use in targeted areas is especially important to promote native perennial grass and forb growth and reproduction and to maintain or enhance resilience and resistance.

Recommendations: Colorado

This section provides information about habitat management guidelines for Colorado. For more details, please visit the Colorado Parks & Wildlife website

Conservation strategy in Colorado (Colorado Greater Sage-Grouse Steering Committee 2008) focuses on:

  • Fire and Fuels Management. Appropriate management of fire in Greater Sage-Grouse habitat is crucial to maintaining and restoring the health of sagebrush communities. Wildfire response planning, fire suppression, habitat rehabilitation following fire, the use of prescribed fire, and fuels treatments in and around Greater Sage-Grouse habitat must be well planned and executed, using an interdisciplinary approach. Prescribed fire, if applied at an appropriate scale and with great caution, may be a viable tool to manage Greater Sage-Grouse habitat in some situations. Mechanical fuels treatments can also be very effective in meeting both fuel and fire objectives, as well as some Greater Sage-Grouse habitat objectives. Rehabilitation and restoration measures following any fire may be essential to ensure that a healthy sagebrush community reestablishes following wildfire. Human safety is, as always, the highest priority with regard to wildfire suppression efforts.
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Colorado Greater Sage Grouse Priority Map: Click the image for a printable verison.

  • Grazing. Herbivory is an integral part of sagebrush ecosystems in the West, and grazing by domestic and wild ungulates plays an important role in shaping and maintaining vegetative communities in sage-grouse range. The nature of sage-grouse habitat (e.g., nesting, brood-rearing, wintering), the level of herbivory (e.g., light, moderate, or heavy), and the ability of vegetation to respond to herbivory, determine the degree to which grazing has adverse, neutral, or positive impacts on sage-grouse habitat. For these reasons, site-specific management direction should derive from these considerations.

    Potential impacts of herbivory on sage-grouse and their habitat include: (1) long-term effects of historic overgrazing on sagebrush habitat; (2) sage-grouse habitat changes due to herbivory; (3) direct effects of herbivores on sage-grouse, such as trampling of nests and eggs; (4) altered sage-grouse behavior due to presence of herbivores; and (5) impacts to sage-grouse from structures associated with grazing management. Timing and stocking rates can be used to favorably alter vegetation and enhance sage-grouse habitat, including as a treatment for noxious weeds. Enough is known about Greater Sage-Grouse habitat requirements to make reasonable recommendations to maintain and improve habitat. However, any effort to manage defoliation of vegetation must consider all herbivores, domestic and wild, grazers and browsers (and ideally, below-ground herbivores as well, such as small mammals).

    Developing grazing systems and management plans that would achieve desired vegetation composition and structure, including shrubs, forbs, and grasses, should benefit both Greater Sage-Grouse and domestic and wild ungulates.

  • Habitat Enhancement. Habitat enhancement should be directed at specific and quantifiable ecological problems (Winward 2004, Monsen 2005). Projects should have specific and quantifiable goals. Some past and current projects have the goal of enhancing the herbaceous (grass and forb) understory in areas that already have sufficient structural characteristics, given the ecological status of the community. Expensive sagebrush manipulation projects that provide short-term herbaceous results should be viewed cautiously.

    Effort is best directed towards restoring sagebrush habitat (e.g., breeding or wintering habitats that do not meet guidelines), improving and/or creating riparian and wet meadow areas, reconstituting water tables by repairing downcut banks, or pinyon-juniper removal. Habitat improvement projects are expensive, often require extensive review, and are long-term in nature. It is important to schedule treatments and management actions in a manner that maintains adequate suitable habitat while other areas are recovering.

    Three steps are suggested for designing habitat restoration projects for Greater Sage-Grouse:

    1. Identify the seasonal habitat component in the project area that is lacking, limiting population growth, or needs improvement. For instance, good nesting habitat consists of live sagebrush with sufficient canopy cover and an adequate grass and forb understory. If it is documented or suspected that nest success is less than optimal because of habitat conditions (e.g., lack of understory, lack of sagebrush canopy), then increasing the shrub overstory or herbaceous understory in delineated breeding habitat may require intervention.
    2. Gain an understanding of the potential site characteristics of the area needing improvement. Of primary importance is identification of the individual species or subspecies of sagebrush in the area; Winward (2004) is recommended to identify the taxonomy and distribution of sagebrush in Colorado. It is essential that this step is completed prior to further planning because the sagebrush species or subspecies naturally adapted to the site of interest will determine the suite of possible management actions for a successful treatment. Attempting to change community types (e.g., black sagebrush to Wyoming big sagebrush) is unlikely to work and is not advised (Monsen 2005). The vegetation, soils, and precipitation regimes of the treatment area need to be understood (Monsen 2005). For instance, basin big sagebrush communities normally occupy deeper soils with slightly higher soil moisture than sites dominated by Wyoming big sagebrush. Occurrence of silver sagebrush, black sagebrush, and low sagebrush is related to specific soil conditions. A good reference point is the sagebrush community that existed prior to habitat loss or degradation.
    3. Select the appropriate management and remedial treatment measures that could be successfully applied to the site to assist in meeting treatment goals. Monsen (2005) provides a detailed manual addressing the myriad of issues associated with sagebrush community restoration. When planning a treatment, it is recommended that managers consult and apply Monsen (2005) to assist and guide in designing appropriate restoration options and application of techniques (e.g., timing of treatments, reestablishment of sagebrush, seeding practicality, seedbed preparation).
  • Pinyon-Juniper Encroachment. Loss of habitat within Greater Sage-Grouse range in Colorado can be attributed in some areas to pinyon-juniper expansion and encroachment. In addition to loss of habitat, conversion of shrub-steppe communities to pinyon-juniper results in alterations in habitat suitability for sagebrush-dependent wildlife (Miller et al. 1999). Commons et al. (1999) reported that Gunnison Sage-Grouse avoid pinyon-juniper areas during breeding and summer periods. A similar study on Greater Sage-Grouse has not been done, but field observations suggest such avoidance also occurs with Greater Sage-Grouse. Doherty et al. (2008) reported strong avoidance of conifers by female sage-grouse during winter. Pinyon-juniper encroachment into occupied Greater Sage-Grouse habitat in Colorado is most significant in the northern Eagle-southern Routt, northwest Colorado, and Parachute-Piceance-Roan populations.
  • Noxious and Invasive Plants. Noxious and invasive weeds may impact rangeland health in much of Colorado. Invasive and/or noxious weeds have become established in some Greater Sage-Grouse occupied habitats, altering their suitability. Once these plants become established they are difficult to control and restoration of native plant diversity is difficult.

    The most effective method of control is preventing establishment by systematic scouting, taking actions to prevent spreading weed seeds, and treatment when infestations are small. When infestations are located, quick action using the most effective and environmentally acceptable treatments is needed. An Integrated Pest Management approach that utilizes alternatives such as grazing (cultural) and biological treatments should be emphasized. All land management agencies and private land owners should coordinate and develop Integrated Pest Management plans that involve periodic scouting, identify effective methods of control, and can be applied on a landscape scale across property boundaries.

Colorado Greater Sage-grouse Steering Committee. 2008. Colorado greater sage-grouse conservation plan. Colorado Division of Wildlife, Denver, CO. Available here.

Commons, M.L., R.K. Baydack, and C.E. Braun. 1999. Sage grouse response to pinyon-juniper management. Pages 238-239 in S.B. Monsen and R. Stevens, compilers. Proceedings: ecology and management of pinyon-juniper communities. RMRS-P-9. United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Fort Collins, CO.

Doherty, K.E., D.E. Naugle, B.L. Walker, and J.M. Graham. 2008. Greater sage-grouse winter habitat selection and energy development. Journal of Wildlife Management 72(1):187-195.

Miller, R.F., T.J. Svejcar, and J. Rose. 1999. Conversion of shrub steppe to juniper woodland. In S.B. Monsen and R. Stevens, compilers. Proceedings: ecology and management of pinyon-juniper communities. RMRS-P-9. United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Fort Collins, CO.

Monsen, S.B. 2005. Restoration manual for Colorado sagebrush and associated shrubland communities. Colorado Division of Wildlife, Denver, CO.

Winward, A.H. 2004. Sagebrush of Colorado: taxonomy, distribution, ecology, and management. Colorado Division of Wildlife, Denver, CO.


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