Each spring heralds a unique spectacle in sagebrush country. Year after year, male Greater Sage-Grouse congregate on ancestral strutting grounds known as leks. The birds strut about, fan their tail feathers, and swell their breasts to reveal bright yellow air sacs while making a weird assortment of booming, swishing, and popping noises – all to attract a hen.
Oil and gas development, overgrazing, sagebrush removal, invasive plants such as cheatgrass, and wind energy have degraded this bird’s habitat. Greater Sage-Grouse also sometimes collide with barbed wire fences and guy wires, often with fatal consequences, and will avoid habitat near tall structures like towers and power lines.
Sagebrush and Survival
Greater Sage-Grouse need large expanses of healthy sagebrush habitat to thrive. This grouse’s digestive system is adapted for eating sagebrush, which makes up most of its diet from autumn through early spring, and is an important food item during summer as well.
Hens nest under sagebrush, where they lay a clutch of 6 to 10 eggs. But poor habitat quality diminishes chick survival, and is one of the limiting factors in sage-grouse population growth.
The Greater Sage-Grouse is an “umbrella” species; that is, efforts to conserve the grouse and its habitat benefit many other species, including Brewer’s and Sage Sparrows and the Sage Thrasher.
Struggle to Protect Grouse Continues
Although the Greater Sage-Grouse’s population is declining, it has yet to receive federal protection. Unfortunately, in 2014 a rider was signed into law preventing – at least temporarily – the bird’s protection under the Endangered Species Act.
But there is hope. New federal plans are in development that would protect core areas for the species and improve management of the grouse’s remaining habitat on public lands. Other incentives would encourage grouse conservation on private lands.
You can support federal protection for the Greater Sage-Grouse and encourage strong management plans for public lands by sending letters to administration officials and your representatives in Congress.