The dirt roads that stretch for miles from the Old Harrison Pass Road to the Juaristi Ranch are flanked by grazing cattle herds and long stretches of sagebrush and cheatgrass. The Barrick-owned ranch in northern Nevada is nestled in the shadow of the Ruby Mountains and the site of a burgeoning conservation project to bolster Nevada’s Greater Sage-Grouse population.
“Here in Nevada, the sage-grouse are on the decline because of wildfire and invasive plant species encroaching on land typically occupied by sage-grouse,” says Bill Upton, Barrick’s Director of Permitting in North America. “Predation by ravens and other predators of sage-grouse eggs and chicks also contribute to this decline.”
Mining also affects sage-grouse habitat, but the impact is relatively small, says Gary Back, CEO of Great Basin Ecology and consulting biologist on the Juaristi project. “When you look at the amount of acres disturbed by active mines in Nevada compared to actual or potential sage-grouse habitat, mining’s impact accounts for probably less than five percent of that potential area and as low as one percent of all land disturbed,” Back says.
While not considered vulnerable or endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the U.S. Department of the Interior has assigned the sage-grouse a “warranted but not precluded” status, putting the sage-grouse in a queue to determine whether to list it as threatened or endangered. A decision could come as early as September 2015. Listing the sage-grouse as endangered could result in restrictions on development in certain areas of Nevada, which could impede mining and energy projects.
“While it’s clear that the impact of mining on sage-grouse habitat is small, Barrick is ready to help,” Upton says.
The Greater Sage-Grouse is an iconic western U.S. bird, particularly the males with their spiked tails, fluffy shawl-collar feathers and bright-yellow chest sacs, which inflate when the grouse perform their eye-catching mating dance. Data established through “lek” counts, annual mating grounds used by the grouse, point to dwindling sage-grouse numbers. Wildlife management agencies have documented a decline in sage-grouse populations since the 1970s. This decline and a growing interest in habitat preservation in Nevada set the stage for a partnership between Barrick and Noble Energy to convert a portion of the 600-acre Juaristi Ranch into sage-grouse habitat. Noble Energy, an oil and gas company, has an exploration project just a few miles north of the ranch.
In late summer the desert heat hangs heavily in the early evening on the Juaristi Ranch. Juniper trees and piñon pines fleck the sage-and gold-colored lands on the ranch. These trees surround a 94-acre meadow on Juaristi that is a key part of Juaristi Project, and that is a problem.
Because of long-term climatic changes, the piñon and juniper trees now grow at lower elevation, invading the historic habi¬tat above the meadow, and subsuming sagebrush and other plants that provide necessary cover and sustenance for sage-grouse, Upton says. “It accounts for a big loss of sage-grouse habitat in many areas,” he says.
The piñons and junipers also serve as perches for a variety of raptors and ravens that prey on sage-grouse, particularly on their chicks. The threat of predators constrains sage-grouse use of the meadow for brood-rearing. These trees are also found at higher elevations near the ranch among insect-rich grasses that grouse use to feed their chicks. In short, the junipers and piñon pines are literally in the way of Barrick and Noble Energy’s habitat conservation efforts, which is why their removal is a key focus of the Juaristi Project.
“Piñon and juniper trees consume a great deal of water due to their deep root systems, so we need to reduce their numbers to free up more water for the meadow,” says Conrad Parrish, Barrick’s Regional Manager of Permitting Services.
To illustrate the point, grass roots descend an average of two feet into the ground, sagebrush roots descend six feet, while piñon and juniper roots sink 15 feet or more. The removal of piñons and junipers from an area that they don’t naturally inhabit will free more water to infiltrate the groundwater table and enhance the meadow.
The first phase of the piñon and juniper tree removal, covering about 150 acres, began in the fall of 2014 and will continue through the winter months. Prior to tree removal, the area was seeded with a mixture of native grasses, forbs and sagebrush seed.
To support the sage-grouse habitat and preserve water — and do so economically — project organizers will refurbish ditches to passively collect runoff water and circulate it across the meadow, rather than installing and maintaining pipes to accomplish the same task.
“We want to modify the ranch this way because not every independent ranch owner in Nevada has our resources,” Parrish says. “We have to see if this can be easily replicated at a relatively low cost.”
If successful, this demonstration project could serve as a model for other independent ranchers or wildlife manage¬ment agencies to implement their own habitat-conservation programs. Gary Back is confident that the makeover of the meadow will result in a thriving sage-grouse habitat.
“We’re pretty sure this meadow is like the Field of Dreams,” he says. “If you build it, they will come. It’s a really, really excellent habitat for them.”
Cheatgrass, an invasive variety of annual grass, is pervasive in northern Nevada and presents multiple problems for the protection and restoration of sage-grouse habitat. It grows so rapidly that it usurps scarce water resources required by the perennial grasses and forbs preferred by the sage-grouse, and it limits plant growth after wildfires. Cheatgrass also dries out quickly in the early summer, making it a major contributor to the high volume of wildfires in northern Nevada. Once burned, this noxious plant’s quick recovery sets the stage for a recurring cycle of fires. “Cheatgrass is both the result of and the cause of wildfires,” says Bill Upton, Barrick’s Director of Permitting in North America. “If you found out how to do away with cheatgrass here, they’d never let you out of Nevada.”
Similarly, the piñon and juniper trees and drought-stricken sagebrush areas at the Juaristi Ranch are vulnerable to summer lighting strikes that could cause more wildfires.
One way to combat the spread of cheatgrass is through high-intensity cattle grazing, a strategy that is being implemented at Juaristi. To help facilitate this approach, Barrick repaired the fencing around the property, which had fallen into disrepair since the ranch was first homesteaded in the 1880s. Re-fencing was completed in the fall of 2014 and will allow for proper grazing management, ensuring that cattle grazing won’t occur on public lands. The cattle will graze on cheatgrass in the early spring, in effect combatting its spread.
With the dated and dilapidated fencing replaced, Upton would also like to see Barrick’s cattle graze in the meadow to improve its grass and forb composition. While this strategy holds promise at Juaristi, using high-intensity grazing to limit the spread of cheat grass on Nevada’s public lands is more difficult because there often isn’t a water source for cattle. At Juaristi, that won’t be the case since cattle will have ample water from the ranch’s meadow.
Ironically, overgrazing has also been identified as a threat to sage-grouse habitat degradation because cattle also feed on native grasses and forbs. Fortunately, Barrick has many years of experience with sustainable ranching in Nevada that prevents overgrazing.