March 16, 2013
By DYLAN WOOLF HARRIS
Here’s the joke: How do you know if the bird you’re shooting at is a raven? If it falls to the ground after the trigger squeeze, that one’s a crow. If it flies off, the fowl was probably a raven.
And here’s the context: Nested among the more than 1,100 birds protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is the common raven. As a protected species, stringent parameters restrict shooting the birds. The similarly shaped and colored American crow — which is also on the list — is recognized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a degradation bird with looser protection rules. Individuals, such as farmers, who have identified crows as a problem can slaughter a murder of them — if appropriate for the care of their crops — without a federal permit.
Because federal law doesn’t regulate crow killing, states are able to set up their own guidelines. In Nevada, crows are lumped into the same category as other game birds, oddly enough, and up to 10 per day per hunter can be killed during the crow hunting season, which itself can run for more than 45 days, allowing for a single hunter to shoot hundreds of crows.
The whole thing might be funny to locals if it weren’t for the sage grouse, whose primary predator is the raven. According to U.S. Geologic Survey biologist Peter Coates, who studied bi-state sage grouse, 90 percent of nest failure is due to predation and ravens are the most common sage-grouse predator by about 60 percent.
The greater sage grouse, found in the West and throughout Elko County, is under review with a possible 2015 inclusion on the endangered species list. Until that happens, teams of people — including a committee assembled by Gov. Brian Sandoval — are doing what they can to resuscitate the animal and its habitat to keep it off the list.
The county devised its own sage-grouse conservation document with one component calling for a pilot program to test how certain provisions affect sage grouse. If populations thrive in the pilot area, the county will advocate for similar provisions in other known sage-grouse habitats. The county scouted potential locations for the program, contacting various ranch owners, and settled on The Devil’s Gate Ranch.
Most crucial to the plan, as described by former assemblyman John Carpenter at a March 7 commission meeting, is securing poisoned eggs.
Even though they are protected, ravens can be “taken” — the preferred agency euphemism — if approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Approval to kill ravens requires a formal request describing the situation, detailing the problem caused by the bird’s unkindness, and an explanation of the non-lethal measures that have already been explored, according to a USFWS spokesperson.
If USFWS agrees that as a last resort killing ravens is necessary, it will determine the appropriate amount and the desired method.
Permits are issued for one year, and permittees need to reapply for continued raven control, said Scott Flaherty, regional USFWS public information officer.
“They’re not designed to be issued into perpetuity,” he said.
This year, the Nevada Department of Wildlife has approval to kill 2,000 ravens with strategically placing avicide-injected soft-boiled eggs. The county’s plan is to obtain eggs already permitted and set them out in the pilot area.
“This raven control will be there to protect the livestock,” Carpenter said, “and I hope to get permission from NDOW to let Wildlife Services put eggs out near the leks and near the (pilot program) ranch property so we’ll be getting a double bang for our buck.”
“A one-year program of raven control will produce dramatic results,” he added.
The actual number of eggs to be placed on ranch property, however, hasn’t been determined, nor at this preliminary time has egg procurement been secured, according to the county manager’s office. And without the eggs, the pilot program is just a ranch.
Once the program is underway, the county will compare the pilot ranch land to a large segment of rangeland near Mary’s River, which, Carpenter said, hasn’t been grazed for many years. That comparison will allow the county to judge “whether grazing or non-grazing is more beneficial to sage grouse,” he said. The idea is that grazing will cut down on wildfire casualties and the hope is to eventually persuade federal agencies to allow more grazing to control wildfires.
The final piece of the program is an open invitation for scores of volunteers to help — among other things — count the birds.
“This is another part of the pilot project, most important, and that is the people we hope and know that will help us,” Carpenter said. “After talking to a number of nationally recognized experts in the areas of wildlife and range management, I believe we can count on these experts to help with the pilot project.”
The Devil’s Gate Ranch, owned by Ken Bowler, is a cow and calf operation with the property line about six miles, as the crow flies, north of Interstate 80 off the Elburz exit.
Bowler describes himself as an average guy who’s just doing what he can. The commission was much more generous, commending the ranch owner at a recent meeting for his willingness to partner with the county.
Sage grouse aside, the program will benefit the ranch, where ravens — grim, ghastly and ominous — have been a problem for awhile.
“There are flocks of them,” Bowler said. It’s difficult to ward the birds away, he added, because “they are really smart, and it’s impossible to hunt them.”
In the past, the ranch was able to plant poisoned eggs, which for a time worked. During that time, he said, sage grouse flourished to the point that vehicles on the road had to stop and wait for the birds to fly across.
There are maybe one or two leks on the ranch, he said, but more in the surrounding properties. Bowler is convinced that planting the eggs will result in a rebound of sage-grouse numbers.
“If they were going to leave it up to me,” Bowler said, “I’d put several hundred eggs out there and do it more than one time.”
The real fear among county leaders is not dwindling bird numbers — it’s the economy. The county’s stance is that the sage grouse is fine. However, the mere possibility of a listing has altered industry and an actual inclusion could be devastating.
A newly released NDOW map identified large swaths of habitat. Eyeballing the map, County Commissioner Grant Gerber estimated about 90 percent of the county was labeled habitat. In a letter to Sandoval, the commission, noting that the Bureau of Land Management adopted the map, stated the agency closed off more than a million acres for oil exploration.
The BLM has since clarified, saying the decision to lease some BLM land for oil exploration was “deferred.”
Commissioner Demar Dahl argued that a deferment can be enough to scare off investors, ending in the same result: A dead project.
A sage-grouse listing could change communities in the area, as other species listings have changed other communities.
Spring Creek resident Bob Collyer was once an Idaho guy. He moved to Elko County in the mid ’90s from a small town with a healthy timber industry economy south of the Canadian border.
In 1984, the woodland caribou was listed as an endangered species.
“Access into the Selkirk Mountains was systematically reduced by hundreds of thousands of acres. Hunting, hiking, camping opportunities became greatly reduced do to road closures to protect these two species (woodland and mountain caribou). Most importantly, for the local economy, timber harvest on government lands was cut to historically low levels,” he said.
Private land harvest could only sustain for so long, he said, and by the mid ’90s the writing was on the wall: The economy was felled.
“With that downturn came layoffs, road closures and a loss of hundreds and hundreds of good paying jobs,” he said. “A loss of suitable employment can devastate communities. Families that have lived in that area for generations were suddenly forced to move away just to make a living and provide for their families. ... Of the six children that my parents raised — my brothers and sisters and myself — only one still remains in the area.”
Collyer said he knew of other “endangered species refugees,” and committed to volunteering his time to help do what he could to support the county’s pilot program.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to the pilot program is time. If the experiment is to be used as evidence going forward the science needs to be sound, and establishing baseline numbers is a laborious necessity.
“Getting the sufficient data is a time-consuming and expensive job. If you don’t get the right amount of data, the study is not going to be valid,” said Gary Back of Great Basin Ecology, who was introduced at a recent commission meeting by commissioner Charlie Myers as a sage-grouse expert. (Though Back humbly sloughed off the accolade).
“The agencies have to use the best science, so if we don’t have good science, it’s not going to be the best science,” he said.
What kind of data is to be collected? Who’s going to collect it? How is it to be analyzed? These were questions that interested Back, he said.
Back also wondered how many years would it take to establish the baseline. He said in the ’80s a sage-grouse study was to be conducted with a five-year baseline establishment period, but funding vanished before any conclusions were drawn.
Northeastern Nevada’s capricious weather affects sage-grouse numbers enough that it could skew the data of a single year.
“You need to have a fairly long period of time on that baseline to understand what’s going on before you start tweaking it,” he said. “Those are the types of things that have to be looked at. If we just go out and say, ‘Well, we think there’s not many sage grouse out there now.’ And then we change things, and then we go out and say, ‘Well, we think that there’s more,’ it’s probably not going to fly as far as using this study down the road.”
A proper experiment also needs proper controls, said Joe Doucette, NDOW’s Eastern Regions public relations officer. The plan calls for a comparison to an non-grazed spot near Mary’s River, but that alone won’t establish a control, particularly if the baselines aren’t similar to begin with.
But if the county’s purpose is to preemptively keep sage grouse de-listed, it doesn’t have the luxury of determining a baseline, let alone proving its hypothesis before the approaching decision deadline.
The county is confident in the efficacy of its program: Killing more ravens and increasing grazing will be good for sage grouse. Without question an increase in predator control and grazing is good for the cow and rancher.
The real issue, others have argued, is habitat.
“At current numbers, there’s no reason to list the bird,” Doucette said. But the numbers are trending in the wrong direction. “The reason is loss of habitat.”
Sage grouse is an obligate species, relying on sagebrush habitat.
“Whether there are predators or not, it can’t live without sagebrush,” Doucette said. “Our deal is that targeted predator control, during chick-rearing season or brood-rearing season, it has a place, but as one tool.”
But sagebrush loss is complicated, with a myriad of contributing factors — including fire — depending on the area. In some states former sagebrush areas have been changed for agriculture purposes: Loss of habitat. In other states, new roads cut through the sagebrush: Loss of habitat. Spring Creek had leks, he said, but the area continued to develop: Loss of habitat.
Doucette said programs that reclaim and foster healthy sagebrush habitat would be preferable.
“We feel strong about the governor’s sage-grouse committee, and there is a regulatory mechanism in place working toward saving and improving habitat,” he said.
But Gerber said that shift in argument neglects to acknowledge the past when sage-grouse numbers were higher. The raven population, never more prevalent than now, coupled with enormous wildland blazes are telling pieces of evidence.
“It makes sense for the sage grouse,” he said. “... You’ve got to keep the fires down and you’ve got to keep the predators down.”
He answers the question “What about habitat?” with another question: What about the fires?
“I’ve never got any agency or environmentalist to address that issue,” he said.