Is Pinon-Juniper Clearing Really the Answer to Sage Grouse Protection?

The BLM claims the massive razing of forest is in the service of conservation

By Jeremy Miller

March 8, 2020


Photo by no107/iStock

Cody Coombs eased his Ford pickup along a rough dirt road in the Egan Mountains of eastern Nevada, a path once used by the Pony Express to negotiate these remote reaches of the Great Basin. We emerged from a rugged canyon strewn with mine debris into a ravaged landscape of stumps and severed limbs—the remnant of a once-thriving piñon and juniper forest. 

If I hadn’t known where I was, I might have thought I was looking at an industrial clearcut. But Coombs, the fuels manager for the Bureau of Land Management district in Ely, Nevada, assured me that what we were looking at was undertaken in the service of conservation. We’d entered a small fragment of the Egan and Johnson Basin Restoration Project, which, over the next decade, will remove 25,000 acres of piñon and juniper forest. This is but one of a host of projects aimed at eliminating vast stretches of these native forests, which, some claim, are encroaching across vast swaths of the Great Basin and the Colorado Plateau at an unprecedented clip. 

We continued on, with the November sun blazing overhead, and passed through a valley filled with cattle into an area of low hills covered in a dense stand of piñon trees. The temperature dropped noticeably. The piñons, some of them 30 or 40 feet tall, were covered in seed-heavy cones. Beneath the trees grew a variety of native plants, which sprouted from a robust layer of cryptobiotic soil—a vital crust of microorganisms that holds moisture within desert soils and prevents erosion. 

Rather than a healthy, mature piñon forest, Coombs saw something else entirely. “As [piñon and juniper] become more dense, we lose the shrub, grass, and forb understory,” Coombs explained. “It doesn’t provide all the functionality we need for animals as well as infiltration of water.” He added that dense stands of trees like this also pose a serious fire risk, though it was hard to see, more than 20 miles from the closest town, exactly what was being threatened.

In the upcoming months, Coombs explained, two bulldozers would drag a massive chain through this stand, tearing out trees and scouring the soil in order to “open it up” for sagebrush. His argument was the same as the one I’ve heard time and again from BLM range managers: Native piñon and juniper trees, which provide habitat for dozens of plants, native birds, reptiles, insects, and mammals, pose an existential threat to sage grouse. Thus, the trees must be eliminated. 


In recent years, the greater sage grouse—a chicken-size bird known for its exuberant mating dance—has had an ostrich-size influence on land policy across the American West. According to the Audubon Society, the sage grouse has lost 90 percent of its historic habitat to oil and gas development, habitat fragmentation, and overgrazing 

The BLM has responded by destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of piñon and juniper forests. According to the BLM, between 2013 and 2018, the agency spent close to $300 million “treating and restoring 2.7 million acres of sagebrush-steppe habitat” across the West. It should be noted that “treating and restoring” (along with the equally vague “conifer removal”) are euphemisms for chaining, cutting, poisoning, and burning piñon and juniper forests.

Indeed, sage grouse protection has become virtually synonymous with the razing of huge tracts of arid land forests. Take, for example, the Bruneau-Owyhee Sage-Grouse Habitat Project, which calls for the elimination of 726,000 acres—1,110 square miles—of juniper forest in the remote Owyhee Mountains straddling Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada in the coming years. “Removing encroaching juniper,” reads a BLM press release, “will improve conditions for greater sage grouse and many other species that depend on a healthy sagebrush-steppe ecosystem.”

Critics aren’t buying its purported benefits to grouse and instead see the destruction of piñon and juniper forests as the perpetuation of old policies of destruction couched in the new buzzwords of ecological stewardship.  “While agencies spend huge sums committing ecocide against native forests, the cattle and the oil and gas and mining industries continue to destroy the bird’s habitat,” said Katie Fite, public lands director of Wildlands Defense, an Idaho-based environmental group.  

Mass removal of piñon and juniper forests is nothing new. The forests, for example, were cleared across vast stretches of the Great Basin to provide fuel for smelters during the Gold Rush. In the mid 20th century, millions of acres of piñon and juniper woodlands were, in the parlance of federal land agencies, “eradicated” and converted to sprawling pastures planted with crested wheatgrass and other exotic grasses. The cutting of native forests as a means to protect threatened species is a far more recent development, Fite said.  

“The BLM and the Forest Service used to openly admit they were destroying P-J forests to get more cattle forage,” Fite said. “Then, as hazardous fuels and sage grouse funds flowed, the same chaining, cutting, burning deforestation schemes were touted as ‘fire prevention’ and ‘grouse conservation.’” 

Many large piñon-juniper removal projects currently underway can be traced to 2015, the year that then–Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced an ambitious cooperative plan in an effort to keep sage grouse off the endangered species list. That year, the BLM established 14 sage grouse recovery plans in an effort to conserve 35 million acres of federal lands in 10 states.

The hope, says Brian Rutledge, Audubon vice president and director of the Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative (SEI), is that a collaborative rather than punitive approach would be better to restore sage grouse, which he described as the avian equivalent of the bison in the sagebrush sea of the West.

“The SEI was created to slow the decline of sagebrush and the species that depend on it,” explained Rutledge. “The USDA responded by working with ranchers and with gas developers to slow the disturbance and to actively try to return some of the habitat to its historical carrying capacity.”

In 2010, the the USDA's National Resource Conservation Service formed the Sage Grouse Initiative, or SGI. It is a diverse and disparate partnership made up of industry and environmental groups, including the Nature Conservancy, Conoco-Phillips, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which, according to the group’s tagline, “supports wildlife conservation through sustainable ranching.”

But under the Trump administration, Rutledge says, science and collaboration has been abandoned in favor of a blatantly pro-corporate agenda. Last March, for example, the BLM reneged on the 2015 sage grouse plans, eliminating more than 80 percent of the 10.7 million acres designated as vital habitat. In addition, the BLM loosened rules requiring buffer zones around mating sites. It also made voluntary the “compensatory mitigation” requirement, which forced energy companies to replace damaged habitat with restored habitat elsewhere.


Back in the Egan Range, Coombs drove to a so-called lek site, where, during mating season in spring, male sage grouse perform elaborate mating dances to woo females. Hundreds of trees had recently been cut from the area and its vegetation was reduced to little more than a thin beige stubble by grazing cattle.

Not only was the lek free of trees, but it was also conspicuously devoid of sagebrush. Coombs assured me that the lack of cover is no impediment to the birds. “Sage grouse love heavily grazed areas,” he said. “It allows the males to display without any kind of obstruction. They seek these areas out.”  

Rutledge of Audubon says that clearing trees to create sage grouse habitat is not a “panacea,” but that in places it should be undertaken “on a site by site” basis in order to aid grouse recovery. “Every vertical structure to a sage grouse is a potential roost for an eagle or a hawk,” said Rutledge. 

Other ecologists I spoke with, however, disputed the idea that piñon and juniper forests are death-traps for grouse. Laura Cunningham, California director for the environmental group Western Watersheds, says that evidence shows the birds thrive in a mosaic of sagebrush and coniferous forest. 

Cunningham, who worked for many years as a field biologist for the US Geological Survey, says that ravens, not raptors, pose the greatest threat to grouse. The wide-scale transformation of piñon-juniper forest to exotic grasslands (like those found throughout the valleys of the Egan Range) has given ravens a decisive advantage. “Ravens don’t perch on trees to hunt,” she said. Cunningham notes that sage grouse are highly susceptible to raven predation in these artificial grasslands, particularly in heavily grazed areas, because there is virtually no cover. “[Ravens] are a flight predator, and they see the chicks from the air.”

Katie Fite concurs, adding that it is not grouse or sagebrush ecosystems but grazers, miners, and oil developers who are benefitting from the BLM’s relentless campaign against the West’s arid-land forests. 

“Cheatgrass is exploding and grouse populations are hurtling toward extinction,” Fite said.  “Extinction, of course, ultimately benefits industry.” 


This article has been updated since its publication.