These days, there’s a lot of talk out West about a game bird called the greater sage grouse. This chicken-sized bird lives in the sagebrush country in places like Wyoming, southern Idaho, southeastern Oregon and Nevada.
Western sportsmen have enjoyed hunting sage grouse in open sagebrush country for generations. Unfortunately this great tradition is in jeopardy. Populations have been declining for years, so much so that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering the bird for possible listing as threatened and endangered – a decision that would end sage grouse hunting for the foreseeable future.
As sportsmen, maintaining robust populations of all kinds of wildlife should be one of our top priorities. That we could lose the opportunity to hunt such an iconic game bird should be a wake-up call.
The story of the sage grouse is a sadly familiar one; the loss of crucial habitat throughout the range has led to steadily declining populations. While there are places throughout the West where robust populations exist, the Fish and Wildlife Service is mostly concerned with the overall trend – not just in population numbers but also the continuing loss of quality habitat throughout the range.
Like another Western icon, the mule deer, sage grouse need a variety of habitat types, including summer and winter range and breeding areas, all of which are highly dependent on the West’s fickle – and often extreme – weather patterns. The decline of the sage grouse closely correlates with decreasing mule deer populations in the West. Each is highly dependent on healthy sage brush ecosystems, and as the health of the sagebrush ecosystem declines, so too do the populations of wildlife that rely on them.
One of the biggest threats to the sagebrush ecosystem is wildfire. Dramatic changes in the wildfire ecology in sagebrush country, has largely been driven by the proliferation of cheatgrass. Once this invasive exotic grass gets established, in and among sagebrush, it causes wildfires to burn hotter and faster. Instead of less intense, slow moving “cool fires” that tend to be beneficial, cheatgrass causes very hot, fast moving fires that completely destroy many hundreds of thousands of acres of prime sagebrush habitat. Then after the fires, cheatgrass outcompetes other native plants making it difficult for the beneficial natives to reestablish. The result is millions of acres converted from healthy sagebrush plant communities to cheatgrass monocultures, leading to more frequent and hotter-burning wildfires that are harder to contain – and often spread to other areas of healthy sagebrush, continuing the cycle.
Energy development such as oil, gas and wind energy is another major threat to sage grouse. Both traditional and renewable projects and their associated infrastructure like roads and pipelines reduce the quantity and quality of sagebrush habitat, translating into lost hunting opportunities down the road. While most sportsmen agree that we need domestic energy, the real challenge is going to be balancing this need with the need to protect high quality habitat here in the West.
The TRCP is working with sportsman’s groups and state fish and game agencies across the West to identify valuable public lands fish and wildlife habitat and develop strategies to conserve them. Here in Nevada, local sportsman’s organizations and the Nevada Department of Wildlife are partnering in this effort. We’re discovering that much of the high value habitat for animals like mule deer, pronghorn antelope and elk overlaps with areas of core sage grouse habitat. The lesson is clear: quality hunting and fishing relies on quality habitat and sage grouse conservation in sagebrush habitats will benefit multiple species of wildlife including those pursued by sportsmen.
An endangered listing for the sage grouse would have far reaching consequences here in the West – and not just for sportsmen. Ranching, mining, energy production and the economies of many small towns and rural areas all would feel the effects.
Sportsmen need to be aware of what’s going on and get involved. It’s not enough to avoid listing the sage grouse; we need to make sure that habitat conditions in the West are improving so that fish and wildlife populations remain healthy and so that sustainable harvest will continue to be part of our wildlife conservation heritage. The TRCP is working directly with our elected representatives in Washington, D.C., as well as with local and state governments to focus efforts on protecting existing habitat and developing new strategies to tackle this challenge. Sign up as a TRCP Western Sportsman Advocate to stay informed and take action on issues that affect our Western hunting and fishing heritage.