Jack Rabbit, Texas-Photo Credit Chase Fountain

Burrowing Owl, Nevada - Photo Credit Tim Torrell

Eyed Trout Eggs, Tonto Creek Hatchery AZ - Photo Credit George Andrejko

Humpback Whales, Orca, Alaska - Photo Credit Sandstrom, Riley Woodford

 
 
 

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People of the Sage: San Stiver

When it comes to the “People of the Sage,” there is a name that comes up often, no matter who you talk to or which conservation challenge you’re talking about: San Stiver.

People of the Sage: San Stiver

 

by Jennifer Strickland, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

 

This article was written as a feature for the summer 2019 edition of the SageWest Newsletter. Learn more and subscribe.

 

When it comes to the “people of the sage,” there is a name that comes up often, no matter who you talk to or which conservation challenge you’re talking about: San Stiver.

 

San Stiver is the Sagebrush Initiative Coordinator for the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA). He likes Basque food, prefers tea to coffee, is currently reading The Art of War, and if you like music with that funky James Brown vibe, you might run into him at a Super Yamba Band show watching his stepson as guitarist. San’s favorite color is green and his favorite day is Monday because it means the work week has officially begun. (Unless, of course, that Monday is a holiday, in which case he laments the fact that the workweek is only four days.) He married his wife, Dawn, in 2000 and they have five children between them, two of whom are wildlife biologists in Colorado but neither of whom work in #sagebrushcountry. And even though his work on the greater sage-grouse helped to catalyze a new way of working in the West, his favorite bird is actually a dipper.

 

So how did San… become San? I interviewed him to discover more about his career, his relationship with the sagebrush ecosystem, what keeps him motivated, and to discover more of the story behind how one biologist became a cornerstone in the largest collaborative conservation effort in American history.

San on a fishing trip. Personal photo, used with permission. 

Jennifer: Tell me about how you got started working in natural resources conservation. Was there anything about your upbringing, or any personal interests you have, that led you to this vocation?

San: Ever since I can remember, I was in the sagebrush ecosystem. My family really liked to hunt and my dad was an avid outdoorsman. Although I grew up in the Mojave Desert, we spent all of our time recreating in the sagebrush of the Great Basin.

 

As I was growing up, I found myself outdoors at every opportunity. I liked hunting ducks, and by the time I was about 10 years old, I knew what I wanted to be: a game warden or a wildlife area manager with a nice duck pond. I think I was the only kid in my class interested in that, and when I was 15, I banded my first duck.

San harvests a bighorn sheep in 1984. Personal photo, used with permission. 

 

How long have you been working on sagebrush conservation, and in what capacities?

Counting my time as a student, I started in 1970 with the Nevada Department of Fish and Game and began working full-time in 1976. I started as a deer researcher working in a mountain brush/sagebrush community in the eastern portion of the state. I did that until 1978, when I became a non-game biologist. I worked on a variety of species across the sagebrush in the northeastern portion of the state, like black-tailed jackrabbits and Brewer’s sparrows. That’s also the year I did my first formal sage-grouse survey. I also had a lot of fun working on long-billed curlews; they hang out in the sagebrush when it’s flooded, after the wintertime when the water table is right next to the surface.

 

I served as the Chairman of WAFWA’s Sage-Grouse Technical Committee from 1995 to 1996, and the Chair of the Sage-Grouse Framework Team from 2000-2003, all while working full-time for the Nevada Department of Fish and Game. After 30 years, I retired from the state in 2003 and got a job with WAFWA so that I could work on a broader scale. I’ve been here, working on greater sage-grouse and sagebrush ever since.

A long-billed curlew in sagebrush. Photo: Tom Koerner/ U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 

What’s your relationship like with greater sage-grouse?

For me, it was originally one of those birds I liked to hunt. I think my family’s exposure to greater sage-grouse goes back to mid-19th century. That’s when my first ancestors in the western United States showed up in Utah and Colorado. My grandfather is from Gunnison.

 

The first time I counted a lek was in March of 1971 near Belmont, Nevada, and that lek is still active today. Although we had a bunch of trend leks, we didn’t get out to count too often because Nevada is difficult to survey in the springtime due to all the mud. Our objective on my first survey was to count the number of sage-grouse on the lek with two observers, then a pilot and area biologists flew over to make a count from an airplane to see how effective aerial counts might be. I thought it was pretty cool that I could actually see this during the days before YouTube—the first birds I saw were not on video, they were live birds popping out across the landscape.

 

1985 was the year I realized that we had an issue with our populations in Nevada. We’d had a severe drought, our production was terrible, and we were trying to figure out the reason for the species’ decline. Since the only thing my state wildlife agency could affect at that time was harvest, we conducted a harvest study that included closing the hunting season in some areas and increasing harvest in others.

 

Sage-grouse populations cycle on an 8-12 year timeframe, so by 1995, I was concerned. We weren’t seeing sage-grouse populations boom back to where they were in 1978/1979. At the time, I was the Chairman of WAFWA’s Sage-Grouse Technical Committee, and I wanted other western states to tell me if they shared my concerns. And they did, because they weren’t seeing the booms either. So next we approached the Directors of WAFWA and asked them if we should petition to list the bird. At the time, to have a group of state biologists being the ones to consider invoking the Endangered Species Act was unheard of, and the Directors took notice.

 

In the end, we determined the bird didn’t meet the five listing factors, but we did tell the Directors that we needed to draw a line in the sand. It was our responsibility to bring this to their attention. In my role as Chairman, I got thrust into the forefront of the issue, and by 2000 when we started getting listing petitions, the Directors of WAFWA set up a framework team of five state biologists, and one biologist each from the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a coordinator. Our job was essentially to develop an inventory of where greater sage-grouse were, identify the challenges and barriers, and develop a strategy for addressing them. I became the Chairman of that team as well and worked in a capacity similar to a national sage-grouse coordinator.

 

During that time, it became very obvious to me that the greater sage-grouse had considerable challenges, and perhaps working in the capacity of the state biologist wouldn't grant me the latitude or freedom needed to address this on a national basis. That’s why I left the state to work for WAFWA.

 

In 2006 our team produced the Conservation Strategy, an incredibly important document that got us where we needed to go. It didn’t have teeth, but it identified the challenges and how to address those challenges. Once that was produced, we needed to figure out how to implement it, so I’ve been working on the implementation of the Greater Sage-Grouse Conservation Strategy ever since.

Greater sage-grouse. Photo: Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management 

What are you most encouraged by that’s happening in sage right now? Conversely, what keeps you up at night?

You have to look at the fact that we’ve been able to mobilize vast resources for the conservation the greater sage-grouse, and now we’re looking to parlay that across the whole ecosystem. Bringing all these folks together to work in one direction, and to have as much national awareness of the situation as we do that continues to grow, is the big picture item that makes me smile.

 

The thing that keeps me up at night, more than anything else, is invasive weeds. It has a very, very real potential to wipe out all of the good work we’re doing, changing the ecosystem forever. And that’s not a good thing.

 

My second concern is the population growth and distribution of feral horses on rangelands. It’s an incredibly complex issue and quite disconcerting from an ecological perspective. We know that free-roaming, feral horses change the habitat for every other animal and plant that lives in sagebrush country. At the present time we’ve got nearly 90,000 feral equids on the rangeland and only 27,000 that are authorized by the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act. By the end of this birth pulse we’ll have 100,000 feral horses on the range. Then over a 15-year window, we’ll have 250,000 to 500,000 horses out there.

 

However, when we incorporate a sociological perspective, everything changes. At times it feels like a solution is unattainable; I don’t minimize the perspective that horse advocates have on this issue. I actually have a friend that I grew up with in Las Vegas who has a couple of wild horses, and they’re one of the most important things in her life. How do we find a solution in the middle when the people we know have feelings this strongly about an issue?

Dried Cheatgrass. Photo: Jennifer Strickland/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Do you have a favorite place in #sagebrushcountry?

My oldest daughter and I used to sit on the crest of the Ruby Mountains, looking out to the east towards some pretty good sage-grouse habitat in the distance. The setting and the company that was pretty amazing—I used to run across blue grouse, snowcocks, mountain goats, and flocks of vireos in the summertime, and she and I would archery hunt that country when she was in high school. It’s just the best place ever.

 

One September day in 1979, I was on the east side of that mountain range doing a bird count when there was a lightning strike about 10 miles south. A rancher I knew that had a particular aversion to sandhill cranes found me there, drove up to my pickup truck, and stood in front of my spotting scope. He started to complain about the cranes in his meadow and I said, “I don’t know if I’d worry about cranes and much as I’d worry about that,” and I pointed to a fire that was starting to perk up. His comment was, “Fires always happen.”

 

But this was different. I went and looked at the fire after it burned, and then 10 years later, in 1989, I returned. The sagebrush had turned to cheatgrass. I noticed one mother sagebrush plant that had blown seed downwind, but that dispersal stopped when it crossed a nearby road.

 

In 1999, another decade later, I went back to the same spot. It was still cheatgrass. Then in 2009, still cheatgrass. So in a 30-year period, nothing had changed, and I realized that for my favorite place in the Ruby Mountains, even though I wouldn’t have expected it, there is some vulnerability to type conversion due to invasive weeds.

The sun sets over the Ruby Mountains in Nevada. Photo: Naaman Horn/U.S. Forest Service 

What character traits or abilities of yours do you think you rely on in order to be successful in advancing a collaborative effort this large and complex?

One of them is an appreciation for collaboration and how that allows me to be more than myself or the sum of my parts. I’m shy by nature, and that’s not what I’d consider an attribute, so I have to force myself to do the kinds of things I need. I spent a lot of my early career working by myself—collecting data and being responsible for my own little world. Then I came to a maturity level where I recognized that there was talent all over the place, and if I could tap into those talents and figure out what more people brought to the table, then the results could be spectacular. You can build synergistic relationships where 1+1=2 ½ or even 3 when you bring other folks to the table.

 

The other thing was the dramatic realization that a wildlife biologist for state wildlife agency really has no control over the habitat out there. You can’t affect change or conservation without bringing the land managers to the table. In 1979, when I was working as a non-game biologist in Elko County, I had a series of hawk nests that I guarded pretty carefully. I didn’t give people the nest sites or share the location with falconers because I didn’t want the nests to be disturbed. One day at an interagency meeting, a Forest Service biologist asked for the locations of some of the Cooper’s hawk nests I’d found. I said, “It’s against our policy to give that out,” and I gave the reasons. They understood and were sensitive to that.

 

The next time I went to survey, I determined that one of those nests was under 800 feet of overburden from a gold mine. They filled the canyon where the nest was, and I realized there was no way the nest could be successful. I thought, “Shoot, I’ve got to engage these land management agencies and make them partners because if it really was valuable to protect that hawk’s nest, they need to have that knowledge, too.” That was my epiphany.

 

A Cooper's hawk at Seedskade National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Tom Koerner/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

 

Do you have any mentors that helped shape your career path? Who were they and what’s something you learned?

Yes, two people.

 

First is Phillip Wright, my mammalogy and ornithology professor at Montana. He had two things that were really inspirational to me. One was his love of learning. He really, really was amazed by things and he had a very, very quiet demeanor. He was right all the time, and if somehow he didn’t know an answer, he told you as much. For instance, we’d be out and see a flock of ducks fly by, and one newbie would declare what he thought the bird was, and Phil would look and go, “Well, you might want to look at your bird book a bit more.” He wouldn’t say “that’s wrong,” but he would encourage students to look into it more.

 

The second thing he taught me was that you collect data and you collect it well. I still remember the example he gave us. A student caught a red-backed vole near Flathead Lake while doing small mammal trapping in northwestern Montana. He labeled it a male, clipped the toe, and released it. Then Phil says, “Are you sure that was a male?” and the student goes, “Not really,” so he changed the sex of the animal on the data sheet. The data was worthless because he didn’t know which one it was. So if you’re going to collect data, collect it well so that it’s unambiguous. That was a great lesson.

 

The second person is George Tsukamoto, the Chief of Game in Nevada. I see him monthly and we still work together on the wildlife record book.  What he taught me was to never be afraid of working hard on something, and don’t ask someone to do work that you wouldn’t do on your own. As a college student with George as the supervisor of the waterfowl program, we’d go out and dig an irrigation ditch and George would work faster and harder than any of the grunts. He worked hard.

A red-backed vole. Photo: Kara Stenberg, used under the Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0 license. 

 

What are some of your favorite things (because I’m sure there are so many!) about working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a partner in sagebrush conservation?

[San laughs.]

The Service was always an “adversary” early in my career. Our fisheries folks would lament having to work with the Service because they had the listed critters, like Devil’s Hole pupfish, Moapa dace or Lahontan cutthroat trout. We had this antagonistic deal with never being able to bring a plan to the Service that met their criteria. (I didn’t have to deal with it personally because I did mountain lions and bears, stuff that was common, which was fine with me.) I maintained that general negative view of the Service that fisheries carried for years.

 

Then there was my experience on the greater sage-grouse framework team. I think the first Service person may’ve been Terry Rich, but when he left in late 1999 or early 2000, Pat Deibert joined. We developed a very close working relationship and friendship because we worked really hard to work with each other.

 

Frankly, I think the experience in the framework team and the experience of working with Pat and others on the sage-grouse issue really helped develop a better working relationship between the state agencies and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Although we still disagree on some things (I don’t think you can find a more contentious issue than wolves and grizzly bears), overall we’ve evolved from an adversarial working relationship to a partnership where we try to accomplish the same things. Because in the end, we’re all looking for thriving, healthy wildlife populations, and there’s multiple ways to skin that cat.

 

Developing respect for people’s opinions is key. Oftentimes, because of its regulatory nature, the Service would give the impression that they’re the auditor. However, on the framework team, Pat viewed everyone on the team as a peer, and that was an important piece of her nature that really helped encourage collaboration.

 

The other fun thing is Pat went on my honeymoon. I got married in Sedona on June 30, 2000. We took off on Friday, then spent Saturday and Sunday running around in Arizona. Come Monday, I had to leave town for a greater sage-grouse meeting in Oregon. I met up with Pat and gal from the Forest Service in Reno, and off we went. So my honeymoon was essentially spent in the backseat of a car, talking to my new wife, with these ladies giving me marriage advice.

Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, home to the Devil’s Hole pupfish. Photo: Cyndi Souza/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

 

Do you have any advice or words of wisdom you would share with our sagebrush conservation partners and practitioners?

As much as anything, it’s a huge job to accomplish the conservation efforts that we need to accomplish, so we can’t really afford to alienate any particular group. Essentially, the only way to accomplish our task is to develop partnerships, work with other folks, respect what they bring to the table, and perhaps more important than that, respect their perceptions and perspectives. In all likelihood they’re going to be different from yours, but they’re no less valid.

 

It also never hurts to give me a call. If I don’t know much about your issue, I can still discuss it, and I might even have an opinion! It never hurts to bounce it off. You don’t ever have to worry about someone being judgmental in terms of what you perceive in a thought process. You’ll get a pretty fair hearing.

A greater sage-grouse takes flight at sunrise. Photo: Tom Koerner/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

 

 

Posted by WAFWA at 7/30/2019 3:31:00 AM
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