Sage Grouse Saga a Wake-Up Call for Sportsmen

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.

Photo courtesy of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

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.

Photo courtesy of the USDA.

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.

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Eric Petlock

Eric Petlock

Eric Petlock grew up chasing ducks and black-tailed deer in California and currently lives along the Nevada/California border. He has worked on sportsmen's and public lands issues in Nevada since 2008, where he has strong relationships within the community. Eric is working as part of a partnership between the TRCP and Nevada Bighorns Unlimited to advance BLM backcountry and build an active constituency of sportsmen in Nevada to ensure that renewable and conventional energy development projects are done responsibly.

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About Eric Petlock

Eric Petlock grew up chasing ducks and black-tailed deer in California and currently lives along the Nevada/California border. He has worked on sportsmen's and public lands issues in Nevada since 2008, where he has strong relationships within the community. Eric is working as part of a partnership between the TRCP and Nevada Bighorns Unlimited to advance BLM backcountry and build an active constituency of sportsmen in Nevada to ensure that renewable and conventional energy development projects are done responsibly.

3 comments on “Sage Grouse Saga a Wake-Up Call for Sportsmen

  1. Russ Cohen on said:

    fyi just in case you haven’t already seen/heard this encouraging story which aired on NPR’s Morning Edition program this morning:

    In Montana Wilds, An Unlikely Alliance To Save The Sage Grouse

    July 10, 2013 3:01 AM

    7 min 0 sec

    Bryan Ulring (left), ranch hand Graham Fulton (right) and Nature Conservancy ecologist Nathan Korb (center) install a pipe on a new well dug for the cattle Ulring manages for J Bar L Ranch. The ranch is working with The Nature Conservancy to try to preserve sage grouse habitat.
    John W. Poole/NPR
    The wide-open prairie of the Centennial Valley in southwestern Montana. Sage grouse living here could be placed on the endangered species list if their numbers and prairie habitat continue to decline.
    John W. Poole/NPR
    A male sage grouse displays his tail feathers in an effort to attract females.
    John W. Poole/NPR
    Ecologist Korb scouts a sage grouse lek, a highly stylized mating ritual, at dawn in the Centennial Valley.
    John W. Poole/NPR
    Male sage grouse strut in a lek in the open prairie. The birds return to the same lek areas year after year.
    John W. Poole/NPR
    A juvenile red-tailed hawk perches above a barbed wire fence. Humans, fences and birds of prey threaten sage grouse survival.
    John W. Poole/NPR
    A sage grouse flock takes wing in the early morning in the valley.
    John W. Poole/NPR
    Sagebrush supplies the sage grouse with a steady food supply and shelter. The birds cannot live without it.
    John W. Poole/NPR
    A herd of cattle belonging to rancher Alan Martinell is penned up in its winter quarters outside the valley. In the spring Martinell will move the herd to the valley to graze. Ranchers usually consider sagebrush a nuisance because it can crowd out the grasses and plants cattle like to eat.
    John W. Poole/NPR
    This electrified cattle fence is a grouse-friendly alternative to traditional barbed wire fences. The single-wire fences can be moved and removed easily, and the grouse are less likely to fly into them.
    John W. Poole/NPR
    Martinell is working with The Nature Conservancy to preserve sagebrush on his grazing lands. Though the scrub’s not good for cattle, some ranchers are hoping that by preserving the sagebrush, they can keep the sage grouse off the endangered species list — a win for conservationists and ranchers.
    John W. Poole/NPR

    1 of 11

    As its name implies, the sage grouse lives in sagebrush country, the rolling hills of knee-high scrub that’s the common backdrop in movie Westerns. Pristine sagebrush is disappearing, however, and so are the birds. Biologists want to protect the sage grouse, but without starting a 21st century range war over it. So they’ve undertaken a grand experiment in the American West, to keep the grouse happy, as well as cattle ranchers and the energy industry.

    This won’t be easy. It’s a fussy kind of bird. Take, for example, the sage grouse lek.

    A lek is a mating ritual. The males — chicken-size, brown and white with spiky tail feathers — have big air sacs on their chests. They look like they’re wearing brassieres. They gather in groups and perform a song and dance to attract females.

    In a near-pristine valley in southwestern Montana recently, I sneaked up on a lek in a valley of foot-high, yellow grass. The birds were wary but kept up their weird bobbing and chortling, occasionally spreading their wings and hopping. When a male extended a row of tail feathers, it looked a bit as though it was sporting a sideways mohawk.
    A male sage grouse displays during a lek, or mating ritual, in Montana. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide within two years whether to add the bird to the endangered species list.

    A male sage grouse displays during a lek, or mating ritual, in Montana. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide within two years whether to add the bird to the endangered species list.
    Stephen J. Krasemann/

    Ecologist Nathan Korb found this lek. He works for The Nature Conservancy. He says the birds don’t do this just anywhere. “Yeah, they’re very picky. They’re looking for flat bare places, where nothing gets in the way of showing off.” And where potential predators … like us … are easy to spot. Eventually the birds decide they don’t like us and fly off, though it might have been the big coyote we also spotted nearby that spooked them.

    The thing that makes the sage grouse especially important out West right now is the . The Fish and Wildlife Service will decide within two years whether to add it to the formal list of endangered species. That worries ranchers who fear they won’t be able to graze cattle near endangered birds. And oil and gas companies fear they won’t be able to drill.

    “ Everything out there eats sage grouse. They’re like ice cream.

    - David Naugle, professor of wildlife ecology, University of Montana

    But, biologists argue, this isn’t just about a bird. “Sage grouse is really the wild-land bird of the sagebrush steppe,” says Tim Griffiths, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Sagebrush steppe is a huge part of the Western range, and the grouse is as much part of it as antelopes and cowboys. Griffiths says protecting the grouse also protects everything else on the land — “maintaining that habitat that all those critters and ranchers can continue to live on for generations to come.”

    Even with a restored sagebrush habitat, the sage grouse is a pretty vulnerable critter. “Everything out there eats sage grouse,” says biologist David Naugle, a sage grouse expert at the University of Montana. “They’re like ice cream.” Hawks, eagles, even crows prey on the ground-dwelling birds, he says. And aside from predators, barbed wire fences are threats; grouse accidentally fly into them and die.

    These birds need open land, says Naugle: “Vast, unbroken, intact rangeland, so that they can find enough secure places to make a living.”

    Naugle is the scientific adviser to the . Started by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the program is governed by a consortium that includes the Nature Conservancy and several state wildlife agencies and universities. Its aim is to protect grouse now, so the federal government doesn’t have to list the bird as endangered — a step that could start a long fight between landowners and the government.

    The initiative pays ranchers not to develop land. It removes fences or marks them so grouse can see them. It cuts down invasive trees, like the juniper and Douglas firs — trees that not only push out sagebrush but give hawks and other predators an easy roost from which to spot and kill sage grouse.

    You can see all this in play in southwestern Montana, in the Centennial Valley. It’s a 60-mile-long valley that includes places like Nemesis Mountain and Hell Roaring Creek. Most visitors go to Yellowstone, east of here. But the grouse like it in this valley, and for good reason. “There’s basin big sagebrush, says Kyle Cutting, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who lives here, too, even in winter, when most people abandon the place to the snowdrifts. “We have mountain big sagebrush,” Cutting says. “We have three tip sagebrush.” It’s wetter than most other places around, which may explain why the valley is so rich in wildlife. Outside the valley, sage grouse habitat has been turned into ranches, farms and suburbs over the past century.

    The Nature Conservancy’s Korb lives here most of the year as well. He’s an affable, energetic guy who sometimes runs through sagebrush just for kicks. He walks me through a field of the stuff, an endless plain of hip-high, pale green bushes.

    “ Sage grouse is probably the largest conservation experiment that’s ever been conducted in the United States.

    - David Naugle

    But if you look closely, there’s more than meets the eye. Korb runs his hand through the 6-inch-tall grass beneath the bushy plants. “This is the kind of place where sage grouse might nest,” Korb says, “and this grass provides cover. … If it’s all grazed off, they’re a lot more exposed to predators.”

    Maintaining the grass as well as the brush means getting the cooperation of ranchers like Bryan Ulring, who manages the J Bar L Ranch in the valley.

    Ulring is a sturdy 6-footer in boots and vest who participates in the Sage Grouse Initiative by grazing his cattle differently — in tighter groups. Wild bison used to graze that way here for protection, Ulring explains. “They always had the presence of predators, be it wolves, or grizzly bears or Indians.”

    Tighter grazing allows other areas of grass more time to grow tall. And that’s good for sage grouse. But to do it that way requires moving cattle around a lot more. And each new grazing site needs water.

    I joined Ulring and a crew from the ranch who were putting in a water well before introducing a herd to the new paddock. Once they get the well in, they’ve got to fence it to keep the cattle in — with a wildlife-friendly fence that’s portable so they can keep moving the herd. The Sage Grouse Initiative recommends an electric fence that uses just a single strand of wire. “All we have to do is contain the mother cows,” says Ulring. “And so a sage grouse can hit this and not have any problem.” Meanwhile, the ubiquitous pronghorn antelopes in the valley — locals call them prairie rockets — can safely run under the wire.

    So far in Centennial, two of 10 ranchers in the valley are participating in the Sage Grouse Initiative. Ulring says many are waiting to see if he succeeds. The conservation program requires ranchers to “think outside the barbed wire box,” he says.

    Naugle says, across the West, the grouse protectors have signed up about 700 ranchers. They’ll need a lot more. “[Protecting] sage grouse is probably the largest conservation experiment that’s ever been conducted in the United States,” Naugle says — bigger even than the effort to save the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest.

    The effort to preserve owl habitat created a years-long battle between the timber industry on one side, and the government and environmentalists on the other. Naugle says the stakes are high here as well — rights to ranching, farming and oil and gas reserves. “At risk is our nation’s energy security and the ability to provide food on these Western lands,” he says. The Sage Grouse Initiative is one shot at avoiding a battle.

    Editor’s note: In our radio version heard on Morning Edition, some of the sounds of a sage grouse lek came from researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

  2. Deborah Richie, Sage Grouse Initiative on said:

    Thanks for your call to action to Sportsmen and to the above comment showcasing the excellent NPR story on the Sage Grouse Initiative–proactive conservation that’s working and needs the support of all sportsmen and women. Find out more here: and LIKE our Facebook page for the Sage Grouse Initiative:

  3. Rich K. on said:

    A rancher friend of mine that allows us to antelope hunt on his property has worked with Wyoming Game and Fish to establish a huntable sage grouse population on his ranch near Casper. If the U.S. Fish and Wildlife lists these magnificent birds (that stop my heart every time I flush one) as endangered all the work that he has done to bring them back could run him out of business! He has managed his ranch for the birds and other wildlife and the cattle he depends on. By listing them he would have to remove the cattle so the birds would not have to compete with them. Twenty years ago there were no sage grouse on his land; now that there is a strong population because of his efforts and money, ironically the birds he worked so hard to save could force him out of the ranching business.

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