Partnership Profile: Gillian Brooks, South Dakota
Gillian Brooks, Belle Fourche, South Dakota
Kitchen Table Conservation
Sipping coffee around a kitchen table on a sheep ranch near Belle Fourche, South Dakota, sounds like a welcome break from work. For Gillian Brooks, a range and wildlife conservationist for Pheasants Forever, those informal conversations are vital to advancing sage grouse conservation.
Within a few months of starting her partnership position at the end of 2011, Gillian demonstrated the power of kitchen table chats as part of reaching out to landowners. Before she arrived, an average of five South Dakota ranchers applied for Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) funding to enhance rangelands. This year, 22 turned in applications.
The dramatic increase reflects a dedicated person spending time with private landowners where the birds live. SGI is a partnership effort of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) that conserves sage grouse through sustainable agriculture. The program dates to 2010 and already has enrolled more than 460 ranchers in 11 western states.
“It’s not all business when you go out,” Gillian says of her job. “One producer was getting in a shipment of ewes when I arrived. I helped him out first.”
She’s a biologist who understands what sage grouse need. At the same time, her role is much broader. You’ll often find her bouncing around in a truck, and then hopping out to discuss grazing practices with sheep or cattle ranchers. The mutual goal is to put more pounds on livestock and turn around grouse declines to prevent an endangered species listing.
Gillian joins 23 other new employees located in rural sage grouse strongholds across the west. Each position is funded as a partnership between the NRCS and an organization or agency. The staff work out of NRCS offices. Funding comes from a three-year Farm Bill allocation called the Strategic Watershed Action Team.
Before coming to South Dakota, Gillian had worked on sage grouse projects in three other states. She saw first-hand the multiple threats facing the iconic bird of western open lands, from encroaching junipers in Oregon to fires in Nevada and energy development in Wyoming.
When she heard about the SGI positions, she applied at once.
“I enjoy the concept of proactive conservation rather than reactive,” she says. “It’s a good concept to follow.”
Belle Fourche revealed a new landscape and set of challenges. Here in western South Dakota near the Black Hills, sagebrush rarely grows taller than knee-height, likely because it’s a landscape at the edge of the plant’s range, Gillian says. For decades, Belle Fourche was known as a sheep capital. Today, cattle and sheep grazing are the two primary agricultural uses.
The birds still find habitat in the low sagebrush and grasses, yet numbers are dropping, from a count of 603 in 2006 male sage grouse statewide to only 250 in 2012. While trees, fire, energy development, and even tilling are not problems here, it’s possible that West Nile Virus is taking a toll, says Gillian. More research is needed to pinpoint the cause, but what does help the birds is to give them the best habitat conditions possible.
A key aim of rotational grazing funded through SGI is to improve the quality and quantity of native grasses and leafy plants that are critical to the survival of breeding hens and chicks. At the same time, the grazing plans aim to preserve sagebrush that can be choked out by abundant grass.
The first step for Gillian when she arrived in the bitter cold winter was to identify the landowners within the core area, where the most breeding birds are found. With funding coming her way, she felt she had no time to lose.
“When I saw the allocation for South Dakota, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh,’ that’s so much money,” she says, recalling her first days. “We need to get a lot of sign ups.”
The allocation from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) for the two South Dakota counties is $580,000 for 2012. Since then the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) added even more. Both sources are from the Farm Bill. With over a million dollars in hand, Gillian hopes they can fund every application.
To get to this point, Gillian credits the helpful team around her, especially the local NRCS field staff, whose long-term positive relationships with landowners are critical to success. She also benefited from the Bureau of Land Management biologist who provided a map showing prime sage grouse areas from telemetry data (tracking radio-collared grouse). She added an overlay of land ownerships, coming up with a match of 80 producers and tracking down addresses.
Gillian then developed outreach materials and mailed invitations. Soon, the phone started ringing. After each call, Gillian and a NRCS rangeland specialist would head out to meet at SGI central – a rancher’s kitchen table and the ever-present pot of coffee.
“We’d talk about SGI, listen to their goals for the ranch, then jump in the truck and go look together and come up with an initial grazing plan even before they turned in their application, ” she says.
For example, they might discuss changing from a three-pasture to a four-pasture rotation system to give more rest time between grazing, so grasses grow taller in places. That’s good for livestock and adds cover for nesting sage hens. More rest from grazing also helps wildflowers and leafy plants thrive. In turn, those plants support many kinds of insects that chicks eat to grow strong.
Each grazing plan builds in flexibility for seasonal conditions, a popular feature with landowners, says Gillian. For instance, a plan may call for producing seven to eight inches of residual grasses, but in a dry season that might not be possible.
Landowners also appreciate knowing that if they receive federal funding and apply SGI conservation practices, they will be considered in compliance with federal law if the sage grouse should ever be listed as endangered (a decision anticipated in 2015).
Gillian finds many landowners are as interested in the sage grouse recovery as they are the financial benefits to their operations.
“A lot of the people I talk to want to see the sage grouse come back,” she says. “They remember seeing them where they were young, or hearing the stories from their grandparents. One producer asked me, ‘If you don’t like wildlife, why are you out ranching?’”
Every day, Gillian admires the rugged and friendly nature of the rural people she is getting to know well. She has become an ambassador for the birds and a community member willing to lend a hand in the hardscrabble sagebrush country of South Dakota.