A new study of sage grouse in Eastern Washington found a surprisingly large benefit from a federal program that subsidizes farmers to plant year-round grasses and native shrubs instead of crops.
The study concluded that is probably the reason that sage grouse still live in portions of Washington's Columbia River Basin.
"Without these lands, our models predict that we would lose about two thirds of the species' habitat, and that the sage grouse would go extinct in two of three sub-populations," said Andrew Shirk of the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group.
The study was conducted by the UW, plus state and federal researchers, and will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management.
Sage grouse are ground-dwelling, chicken-sized birds found in 11 Western states, from North Dakota to Idaho to California. As few as 200,000 remain in the U.S., down from a peak population of about 16 million. The males are known for their strutting courtship ritual on breeding grounds, and they produce a bubble-type sound from a pair of inflated air sacks on their necks.
Federal officials in 2015 opted not to list sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act but announced federal land-use restrictions. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will review the bird's listing status within five years.
The Conservation Reserve Program, established in 1985, is voluntary and pays farmers to plant agricultural land with environmentally beneficial vegetation on 10- to 15-year contracts.
Of the roughly 24 million acres planted through the program in the U.S., about 1.4 million acres are in Eastern Washington.
"From the outset, it was envisioned that the CRP program would be good for wildlife," Shirk said. "But I don't think anyone expected that it would be this valuable."
Will McDow, who works to protect sage grouse for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the report was good news.
"It's a great example of public-private partnerships," McDow said Tuesday. "It's something to celebrate."
In Eastern Washington, the sage grouse population has stabilized at about 1,000 birds. They live in three main places: the Yakima Training Center, Moses Coulee, and Crab Creek area.
The Yakima Training Center is a U.S. Army facility where the native sagebrush habitat is mostly intact. But the other two areas are heavily agricultural, with irrigated farmland and dryland wheat fields. The birds would likely not have survived there without the CRP program, the study found.
Sage grouse in other Western states are threatened mostly by oil and gas exploration and other types of development.
Previously, studies of sage grouse across their range in the United States suggested Eastern Washington agricultural areas would not be hospitable for the birds. Washington's habitat is a relatively small island separated from the broader sagebrush seas in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and Nevada, the study said.
"The other studies generally predicted that Eastern Washington was a place that shouldn't support sage grouse because most of the habitat was converted to agricultural lands," Shirk said. "And yet they're still here."
The authors' results show that without the federally-subsidized CRP lands dominated by native grass and big sagebrush, sage grouse in Eastern Washington would only have about one-third the amount of usable habitat, and the two subpopulations in agricultural areas would become so small that they would likely go extinct.
A harsh winter, for example, could decimate a small population, Shirk said.
The study found that if Washington's CRP lands were extended to be near existing sage grouse populations, the birds' habitat could be increased by as much as 63 percent.
"We have seen CRP help grassland birds across the country," McDow said.