As a westerner, I think that the unique sweet-ish smell of sagebrush flows in my blood. I find myself breathing in a whiff while settling into a deep sense of peace whenever I enter the great western basins’ seas of sage. It seems no surprise that I am passionate about an iconic sage-steppe resident, the greater sage-grouse.
I recall the first time I saw a strutting sage-grouse male outside the headquarters of Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in eastern Oregon. He seemed completely self-absorbed but there must have been a hen or two skulking in the grass nearby. Even years later, spring after spring, I can sit mesmerized for hours watching these magnificent displays. Shivering in the frosty early mornings, I strain to hear “hrrmph-swish-chortle” as a bird violently throws out his air sacs, propels his wings forward rubbing against stiff, bristly feathers extending from his nape, and vocalizes, usually when challenged by another male. The action becomes frantic when a female flies or scurries in.
The greater sage-grouse dance in groups called leks from February to April. Unless the habitat is disturbed, they return to the same area each year, a plot that is more open than the surrounding sagebrush landscape where the hens will hide their nests on the ground deep under a big bush. There is a clear hierarchy on the lek: a dominant male that is fiercely challenged by three or four others. Other males border the lek, mostly facing outward like decoys.
Most female sage-grouse visit the lek for breeding in early to mid-March. She lays her clutch of six to ten eggs over about two weeks and does not commence setting until all eggs are laid. If the hen loses her clutch early, she will return to the lek for re-breeding. Nests are lost to predators, most commonly ravens and coyotes. The hen’s best defense is complete stillness in her nest cup that is scraped out dirt lined with a few feathers pulled from her breast. She leaves the nest for a few minutes one to two times daily to defecate and grab a bite.
After three to four weeks of setting, the hatch occurs nearly simultaneously and precocial chicks emerge ready to eat on their own with a little direction from mom. The hen and chick diet is insects. Consequently, the wetter meadow areas of the shrub-steppe are essential habitat. Chicks grow rapidly to near-adult size by seven to eight weeks at which time they fly as strongly as adults. Broods and hens stay together until late fall although co-brooding becomes more common after a couple of months.
The winter diet of greater sage-grouse is nearly exclusively big sagebrush. They are long-lived, averaging four years. Depredation and collision are the main sources of mortality although West Nile virus has taken a toll. Mortality is highest during reproduction. Males are vulnerable as predators become aware of leks and females are weakened by nesting.
The greater sage-grouse is dependent on healthy, undisturbed shrub-steppe for survival. It occurs only in the 11 western states that contain this landscape. It has never been successfully raised in captivity. In recent years, many development pressures-energy, grazing, agriculture, urban encroachment-have greatly shrunk this landscape and increasingly destructive fires have furthered the decline. With the loss of its habitat, the greater sage-grouse population has sharply declined so that only three percent of its peak population of 16 million birds remains today.
The greater sage-grouse was petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act. In 2010, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) determined that listing was warranted but precluded because of higher priority species. Litigation led to a court mandate for a listing determination by fall 2015. On October 22, 2015, the Secretary of the Interior announced that a listing was not warranted. This decision was based on plans for habitat protection developed by states and public land owners, particularly the Bureau of Land Management. So far, the reason is mostly plans and we greater sage-grouse advocates are holding our breath that there will be actual implementation without the impending hammer of endangered species candidacy. It’s easy to feel fatalistic when so few birds remain.
In Washington, there are about 1,000 greater sage-grouse in four distinct populations in Douglas County, the US Army Yakima Training Center, Lincoln County, and the Yakama Reservation. The latter two populations consist of re-introduced birds from Oregon and Nevada to areas where birds were completely extirpated. The greater sage-grouse has been listed as threatened by Washington since the 1990s and the state has an exhaustive recovery plan, including the re-establishment of lost populations.
Before the October USFWS decision, Washington’s greater sage-grouse were considered a distinct population because of their isolation and some genetic differences in Douglas County birds. Because of this recognition, Washington greater sage-grouse had been candidates for federal endangered species listing long before the birds were reviewed across their entire range. The recent ruling removed the distinct population status consideration of Washington’s birds and they are also no longer federal candidates for listing, leaving the entire responsibility for their salvation to the state and us passionate advocates.
There’s not a lot of habitat left in Washington. The largest population in Douglas County depends mostly on voluntary private landowner participation in US Department of Agriculture wildlife conservation programs. Those of us who support land conservancy must be in the forefront if we’re going to enjoy the spectacular greater sage-grouse dance in future springs.
The greater sage-grouse is an umbrella species. That means if we can save it for future generations, we can also protect many other wildlife species-pygmy rabbit, sage thrasher, Brewer’s sparrow, American badger, black- and white-tailed jackrabbits, short-eared owl-that depend on healthy shrub-steppe. For me, there is nothing than a greater sage-grouse that says more about the importance of land conservancy.