Boise, ID - March 19, 2014
Vern Kershner has pictures from the 1930s of a hill on his Jordan Valley ranch covered with sagebrush and bunchgrass, with no juniper trees.
A decade ago, the juniper trees in the same area were so thick, "you couldn't ride a horse through it," Kershner said.
A neighbor wanted the wood, so Kershner let him cut down the junipers. Today, the sagebrush and bunchgrass are back - which is good for his cattle and the sage grouse that share the land.
Kershner is a third-generation rancher who has been on his 5,000 acres for 50 years. His ranch has plenty of water, especially after nesting season, when sage grouse hens seek out meadows for their chicks to find grasses, forbs (edible nongrass plants) and insects for cover and for food.
Private land makes up just 16 percent or so of the 8 million acres of prime sage grouse habitat across Idaho. That's why federal and state officials have concentrated their management strategy on the 5 million acres of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
But when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decides in 2015 whether to list the grouse as a threatened creature under the Endangered Species Act, it will be looking at the contribution private lands play in the survival of the bird.
And it's not just the grouse at issue: Its health is considered an indication of the entire sagebrush steppe ecosystem in which it lives.
That's why a partnership led by the Natural Resources Conservation Service is working with landowners to protect more than 25 million acres of private grouse habitat across 11 states.