Sage grouse habitat conservation has become an important topic among state and federal wildlife land managers, private landowners, and sportsmen and women.
Sage grouse were once a prolific species in the American west and parts of Canada, once numbering as high as 16 million individuals.
Yet, over the past few decades, their numbers have dropped due to droughts, wildfires, invasive species, lack of vegetation, urbanization, and energy development.
Today, the bird’s population is estimated at fewer than half a million across 11 western states.
And in today’s blog, we’ll explore what the sage grouse is, what’s happening to their habit, and what conservation is being attempted.
1. What is a sage grouse?
The sage grouse is a chicken-like bird that’s uniquely adapted to sagebrush country.
It’s well-known for its early-morning dance during mating season.
In recent years, the population of the sage grouse has been devastated due to the large-scale conversion of native rangelands to cultivated fields, housing and energy developments, invading conifers, and catastrophic wildfires.
All these events have fragmented their vital landscape and reduced it in half.
Now, stewardship-minded ranchers are intent on reversing this decline by conserving and enhancing sagebrush habitats on their grazing lands.
2. What other names is the sage grouse called?
The sage grouse also goes by sage cock, sage hen, and sage turkey.
3. What does the sage grouse look like?
The sage grouse is the largest grouse species in North America and has one of the most unique appearances.
These birds have a long tail that is pointed at the ends.
Males have a yellow patch on their heads that is complimented by two yellow sacs on the neck.
Its body is gray on top with a white breast and black belly.
The females are mottled brown and gray with a light brown throat.
4. What is unique about this bird?
The sage grouse has an elaborate courtship ritual known as “lekking.”
The males will perform a “strutting display,” which allows females to choose a suitable mate.
However, after that, females do all the nest-building, incubation, and raising of the chicks without any help from the males.
The nest is on the ground (usually under a sagebrush shrub) and sometimes under tufts of grass within dense patches of shrubs.
Nests usually have at least two directions that aren’t heavily vegetated, which presumably function as possible escape routes for incubating females.
5. What is a sage grouse’s habitat?
Sage grouse inhabit large, intact, and mostly treeless landscapes with sagebrush, native bunchgrasses, wildflowers, and wet meadows.
These large areas are called “sagebrush-steppe or sagebrush shrublands.”
Sagebrush leaves are what sage grouse eat.
They’re toxic and full of harsh chemicals called terpenoids to humans.
This is the same basic chemical found in turpentine.
However, sage grouse have a unique digestive system that allows them to remove the toxins and excrete them separately as a cecal dropping.
This dropping looks like a silver-dollar-sized drop of tar.
The leaves are nutritious to the sage grouse and allow them to gain weight in the winter months (unlike most animals).
The sage grouse’s habitat is some of the coldest and harshest climates in North America.
However, these birds are tough, and they’ll use windswept ridges if needed to find sagebrush leaves that are exposed.
The sagebrush itself also acts as a great shelter for them.
6. Where can sage grouse be found?
Sage grouse habitats are often found in Western states, such as Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, California, Colorado, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
They’re also common in Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada.
7. What type of research is being done about the sage grouse?
Forest scientists are conducting research about both the sage grouse and their ecosystem.
This research is useful to wildlife and land managers who aim to conserve the species and its habitat.
So far, the research has targeted three main areas.
Sagebrush habitat restoration, post-wildfire and post-invasive species disturbance, including mechanisms for removal and replacement of cheatgrass with native species, and effective monitoring of management actions.
Current and future landscape analyses for conservation planning, including genetic sampling and connectivity of habitat and populations.
Breeding and wintering ecology, habitat relationships, and effectiveness monitoring of management actions in response to energy development.
8. What are the top seven reasons to save the sage grouse?
What’s the big deal about a chicken-like bird anyway?
Why does it need saving?
Let’s talk about the top seven reasons why you should focus on saving this animal.
The sage grouse is found only in North America
This animal is found only in North America, and it’s quickly on its way to extinction.
Back in 2010, the sage grouse became a candidate for protection as an endangered species.
While it’s not always easy to see why one animal in particular warrants protection, saving the sage grouse will benefit more than just the species.
It benefits the entire sagebrush ecosystem.
This will become even more evident as you read through the rest of this section.
The sage grouse restores balance to the land
This animal is suffering because its habitat and ecosystem are out of balance.
When we restore the land and implement proper land management, we’ll be able to restore the rest of the ecosystem that is out of balance, assisting numerous species and protecting soil and water quality.
The sage grouse brings people together
The sage grouse is dependent upon its habitat and ecosystem.
However, we are also dependent on this ecosystem for recreation, ranching, oil and gas development, etc.
If something is out of balance with the sage grouse ecosystem, it’s also out of balance with ours.
As such, we must work together to create an effective and enforceable plan that protects the best remaining habitat.
The sage grouse protects ranching
While this may not be immediately evident, ranchlands and wildlife habitats are one and the same.
The sage grouse shares land with cattle, and conservation efforts give ranchers new incentives and funding opportunities to enhance their operations, restore their habitats, and put endangered species on the path to recovery.
When we take care of our land, we are able to use it for a much longer time, and this protects the ranching industry.
The sage grouse benefits other wildlife
Habitats and ecosystems are often interconnected.
Sage grouse are an essential part of ecosystems out West.
By protecting habitats for sage grouse, we protect habitats for hundreds of other animals like elk, deer, antelopes, etc.
This creates a domino effect for conservation, and it’ll ultimately better our planet.
The sage grouse supports a vibrant, diverse economy
Sage grouse are improving economies in a couple of ways.
While there are still some that choose to hunt sage grouse, there are increasing instances of sage grouse conservation tours highlighting the bird.
For instance, in 2013, there were over 100 people who visited Craig, Colorado specifically for one of these conservation tours.
They benefitted the economy by staying in hotels, consuming 200-300 meals, and spending money on fuel and supplies.
The sage grouse provides a guarantee for future generations
When we choose to invest in and protect sage grouse now, we ensure that these birds and their wild landscapes can be here for future generations to value and enjoy.
While the birds are endangered, they are still capable of recovery, and that’s what we should be investing in.
As a society, we have the responsibility to leave the world a better place than we found it for future generations.
This means being good stewards of the land and protecting various wildlife habitats.
9. How are sagebrush habitats being restored?
Sagebrush is the habitat of the sage grouse.
As these ecosystems have been disrupted, executive orders and agency policies are attempting to restore the habitat.
As a result, Forest Service scientists are transitioning from seeding monocultures to planting mixtures of shrubs, grasses, and forbs, which necessitates an understanding of site preparation to control invasive species while retaining soil microbiota, biological soil crusts, residual native plants, plant-plant interactions, seeding and establishment requirements, and availability of equipment to meet these needs.
Forest Service scientists are also conducting greenhouse, small plot, and operational scale research to address these issues.
The primary collaborators include:
Seven western universities
Two USDA Agricultural Research Service Laboratories
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
S. Geological Society
The Noble Foundation
10. How will ranchers help to address sage grouse habitat challenges?
Since issues with the sage grouse and sagebrush landscape began, ranchers have joined the range-wide collaborative and voluntary effort.
In 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that protection under the Endangered Species Act was no longer needed for the species thanks to the ranchers’ efforts.
Still, the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) is working with nearly 1,500 landowners in 11 Western states to improve habitats for sage grouse while also improving ranching operations.
As a rancher or landowner, it’s important not to remove sagebrush from your land or to disturb the birds.
Sage grouse require access to vast, intact landscapes year-round.
So, if your land provides the food and cover they need year-round, it’s important to be mindful of that.
11. What can you do as a landowner or land manager?
If you own or manage land, then you can work with the NRCS to develop a conservation plan for your land.
The plan will be customized specifically for your land and provide a roadmap for how to use a system of conservation practices.
By following this plan, you’ll hopefully meet both natural resource and production goals.
12. Do sage grouse migrate for the winter?
As many birds migrate, you may wonder if sage grouse do as well.
While many sage grouse do migrate, others stay sedentary.
Migration often depends on how much snow the local landscape receives.
Sage grouse like to avoid deep snow, so they will move from higher to lower elevations.
So, for example, a population might migrate from a high elevation in Idaho.
This would mean moving from a mountain valley to the desert floor.
Additionally, researchers have documented one population of sage grouse moving 150 miles in response to winter conditions on the border of Montana and Canada.
This is the longest known migration route for the greater sage grouse.
That said, this distance is more of an exception than the rule.
Sage grouse migrate more like big game species, such as elk or deer, than other bird species.
They move by the tens of miles as opposed to the thousands of miles when traveling seasonally.
However, much like other birds, they do flock together in the winter, and it isn’t uncommon to see flocks of several hundred birds joining forces.
This makes it easier for them to avoid predators.
In the sage grouse’s winter habitat, the bird seeks sagebrush plants that are exposed above the snow because they eat 100 percent sagebrush leaves in the winter.
They need to fill their crops (the food storage sack in their throat) full of leaves every day.
This crop is a little larger than a golf ball when it’s full.
Additionally, the birds seek to be relatively undisturbed and flush when they are.
Flushing uses up their stored energy reserves as they fly away from perceived danger.
Finally, sage grouse should have a large expanse of sagebrush.
This is vital if you want a healthy and successful sage grouse population.
13. Would captive breeding of sage grouse be effective?
Many wonder if captive breeding of sage grouse could be an effective way to help the population recover.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look that way.
What we have on our hands is not a population problem but a habitat problem.
The land is where we must invest our resources.
If sage grouse don’t have a healthy place to live and the right food to eat, then they simply cannot survive.
To help remedy this problem, we must engage ranchers and landowners to help with land conservation.
Furthermore, grouse breeding can be dangerous because it could create “genetically homogenous sage grouse.”
Because greater sage grouse genetics are varied across its range, captive breeding could disrupt that.
Diseases are also a concern when it comes to captive breeding.
Overall, while captive breeding has been attempted in the past, researchers said it didn’t work, and it isn’t recommended.
Although the sage grouse may be an entirely new animal to you, it is a critically important bird to the Western landscape.
If you’re a rancher or a landowner out West, it’s vitally important that you understand what you can do to help conserve your land and protect this species.
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