Sage grouse have prospered on the thin, sandy soils of the Great Basin for millennia. The presettlement range (prior to 1800) of the largest gamebird in North America was vast. There were an estimated 15 million birds in the “sagebrush sea” before European intrusion. Today, biologists believe the breeding population cycles between 200,000 and 500,000. Adding optimism for recovery, there are dozens of entities enthusiastically cooperating to reduce persistent threats facing the sagebrush ecosystem. The Sage Grouse Initiative is leading the charge by forging viable partnerships to sustain stewardship of appropriate acres, all to save this iconic creature.
These distinctive birds evolved in high-desert steppe environs dominated by sagebrush. However, their uniqueness is a blessing and a curse. They are an obligate species that depend on sagebrush and associated native forbs, grasses, and insects to survive. In winter, nearly 100 percent of their diet consists of leaves and seeds from this aromatic, shrubby plant. They require expansive, undisturbed tracts of habitat to establish small, circular breeding grounds or “leks.” Radio-telemetry studies have shown birds travel distances of up to 15 miles to participate in festivities on just one lek.
No eloquent, flowing prose could sufficiently portray the bird’s promiscuous mating rituals. A bucket list experience would be to watch the pageantry by secretly hiding near a lek, but the curious can still view spectacular videos on YouTube. During the territorial bickering displays in March and April, hens will eventually pick one favorite beau. Multiple females will mate with a dominant male, leaving other roosters on the sidelines, their frustrated courtship endeavors thwarted. After breeding, hens manage all parental duties from nest building to caring for the chicks, which might be glimpsed under the hen’s protective wings, from May to July.
Unfortunately, sage grouse are declining in many landscapes. Diminishing species dynamics have reached levels that warrant a position on the threatened or endangered list by definitions in the Endangered Species Act. In fact, their geographic range has receded by 50 percent, and the estimated numbers have declined by more than 90 percent, with no evident, simple remedies to curb these trends. Captive breeding efforts have been unsuccessful. They are listed as “endangered” in Canada.
The dilemma now faced can partially be attributed to “shifting baseline syndrome.” This syndrome is defined as a type of amnesia, whereby succeeding human generations forget past biological conditions. In this case, the knowledge and memory of abundance and geographical distribution of sage grouse, essentially, became extinct.
The alarm bell was sounded in 1916 when William Hornaday, director of the New York Zoological Park (now the Bronx Zoo), wrote Save the Sage Grouse from Extinction. In 1886 he traveled to Montana to collect bison specimens from the last remaining wild herd for the United States National Museum. In Custer County, he discovered thousands of sage grouse and shot “about two dozen.” By the turn of the century there were only remnant populations in the area. He attributed this decrease to the “juggernaut of slaughter” (automobiles expanding access) combined with the invention of pump-action and autoloading shotguns, seven-month-long seasons, and bag limits of up to 25 birds. Enforcement of those regulations by game wardens were lax, at best.
Although Hornaday had sound reasoning, hunting was not the main threat to sage grouse. What he did not consider was the ongoing impacts of human settlement and habitat loss. Early on, railroads spawned new towns, highways, dry-land cultivation, and unfettered grazing. Soon “war” was declared on sagebrush, abetted by state and federal governments. Burning, plowing, and herbicides were deployed to rid the countryside of the “useless” plant. Next came active fire suppression, which hindered regeneration of the arid prairies. These devastating practices allowed for the intrusion of perennial woody plants and invasive species, such as cheatgrass, that negatively impacted survival of sage grouse.
In the 20th Century, development of infrastructure for hard-rock mining, energy production, construction of utility lines, and associated clatter have triggered further fragmentation of the necessary undisturbed tracts of sagebrush, forcing sage grouse onto habitat islands. Conservation entities recognized the danger and began to actively set aside acres to protect and preserve the species. Two examples are the 27,000-acre Seedskadee (based on the Shoshone words for “river of the prairie hen”) National Wildlife Refuge established in 1965 in Wyoming, and the 23,000-acre Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge established in 1967 in Colorado.
A petition to list sage grouse as endangered was submitted to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 2002. Since the original proposal, several reviews were undertaken, but the species was never officially listed as endangered. In 2010, the Department of the Interior assigned a “warranted but precluded” level, essentially creating a waiting position behind species more at risk.
To prevent the endangered designation, the Natural Re-sources Conservation Service launched the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI). The SGI brought into focus a whole new level of conservation on privately stewarded sagebrush rangelands that was missing from the conservation equation. Funded by the Farm Bill, Working Lands for Wildlife helps landowners and partners to target the best properties for technical assistance and financing for Western ranchers who voluntarily make habitat improvements to their land.
According to Dave Naugle, wildlife professor at the University of Montana and SGI science advisor, providing incentives to landowners to reduce pinyon/juniper intrusion, controlling invasive species, and preserving sagebrush each produce impressive outcomes. In one watershed study in Oregon, sage-grouse population growth increased by 12 percent (documented by radio-telemetry evidence), nest success grew by 22 percent, songbird numbers increased by 50 percent, forage for livestock measured 60 percent more abundant, and local water resources improved. Most importantly, the scale of conservation efforts by the SGI matches the amount of habitat required to conserve intact populations.
State game agencies in Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, North Dakota, and South Dakota all have preservation programs for sage grouse. With a growing knowledge base of the bird’s biology and sophisticated digital geographic analysis tools, there is increased hope for recovery. It will take more than “conservation kindness.” But don’t get the idea that the work is easy. Long hours and backbreaking work in remote country with a host of partners makes all the difference. Michael Brown of Pheasants Forever said, “Cooperation between diverse entities, including the Natural Resource Conservation Service, Bureau of Land Management, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and private-land ranchers is a model for future recovery endeavors.” Oregon rancher, John O’Keeffe stated, “Cattle operations are compatible with sage-grouse life cycles, if well-designed grazing programs are implemented. Ridding the landscape of the pinyon pines and controlling invasives to promote native bunchgrass and sage benefits us all. The continued disruption of our country by development is a negative factor. Landscape-scale recovery will not be overnight, but the Sage Grouse Initiative has it going in the right direction.”
These wonderful gamebirds deserve to cohabit this planet with us and not be subtracted from existence. Advancements in wildlife management techniques bolstered by cooperation between a host of investors have led to success in sustaining ranching traditions and the survival capacity for sage grouse. With eight states still offering hunting seasons, the sage grouse will always be an incredible challenge and noble trophy for those lucky enough to have the opportunity to pursue them.
Originally published in Volume 9, Number 5 (August-September 2021) of Covey Rise.
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