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3 Things To Know About Protecting The West's Greater Sage Grouse

As the sun rises over a remote rye field in northwestern Colorado, about 170 greater sage grouse dance in a distinctive mating display. Males make popping and whooshing sounds and fight to attract the female’s attention.

“All these males that you see out here, less than 10 percent will actually get to breed,” whispers Brian Rutledge, the director of the Audubon Society’s Wyoming office.

This breeding ground, known as a lek, is one of the largest in the state. It’s also on private land, which makes up 40 percent of sage grouse habitat throughout 11 Western states. The other 60 percent is on public land. And one of the biggest public land holders is the Bureau of Land Management, which controls 50 million acres of sage grouse habitat.

The Bureau of Land Management is expected to make a major decision about greater sage grouse conservation Thursday.

Public and private partnerships to conserve habitat for the wide-ranging, turkey-sized bird are growing the West, including Oregon, Idaho, and Washington.

Here are three things to know about efforts to protect the sage grouse:

In 2010 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deemed the bird in need of protection on the Endangered Species List, but it was wait-listed in favor of other more imperiled species. Now, because of a legal settlement with environmental groups, the service is required to make a listing decision by Sept. 30.

Some liken this decision to the northern spotted owl listing in 1990. It could indeed be more far reaching.

Sage grouse habitat varies throughout its range. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials have called threats to the bird “a death of one-thousand cuts.”

In the Northwest some of its biggest threats are encroaching pinyon and juniper trees, which create perches for hungry birds of prey. Other factors that make the inter-mountain Northwest less hospitable for sage grouse: the native vegetation they rely on is less abundant because of intensive grazing, wildfires and invasive cheatgrass.

Other threats include noise and habitat fragmentation from oil and gas drilling in Wyoming, transmission lines running through prime habitat in Colorado, mining in Nevada, and sod-busting in Montana.

Once sage grouse successfully breed in an area, they will return year after year, no matter if it’s been fragmented or disturbed by one of these threats.

“They don’t know how to move,” said Pat Deibert, national sage grouse coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service. “Once they’re successful, they stay like glue.”

Tim Griffiths, Sage Grouse Initiative national coordinator, said fragmentation of habitat is the number one reason the birds’ numbers have declined so greatly.

“Very low levels of fragmentation have very predictable and significant impacts on the population,” Griffiths said.

Environmentalists have banned together with ranchers, bird advocates and mining and drilling operations to help conserve the birds’ habitat before an Endangered Species listing is needed. If this effort succeeds, they say, it could be the new way forward in conservation.

“We identify what needs to be done, we put together a plan that achieves that, and allows for those who live there,” Rutledge said. “It has to be a balance, though. I want room for the bird and room for the man.”

One example, held up by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, is a conservation agreement in Oregon that covers all eight counties in the state that have sage grouse habitat.

In March, the federal government signed on to Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances with local ranchers that calls for landowners to improve habitat for the birds by taking out invasive juniper trees and cheatgrass. The agreements would also give assurances that ranchers who sign on won’t face harsher restrictions down the road if the sage grouse is listed as an endangered species.

More recently, this week Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and three other senators asked their chamber's Appropriations Committee to approve more federal spending on these types of collaborative efforts.

As many of the people who are deeply involved in sage grouse conservation efforts say: as goes the sage grouse, so goes the West and its iconic sagebrush steppe landscape. The sagebrush ecosystem, considered one of the most imperiled in the U.S., is home to more than 350 other species, like mule deer, golden eagles, and pygmy rabbits.

“The sage grouse is the lever that’s made it possible for us to move this ecosystem,” Rutledge said. “Sage grouse, to me, is not incidental, but it’s an opportunity because there are so many species out there that are utterly dependent on this landscape.”

Editor's Note: Some reporting for this story was done during a fellowship sponsored by the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.

Copyright 2020 EarthFix. To see more, visit .

<p>Two female sage grouse appear to ignore a male strutting at the lek as he tries to attract a mate.</p>
Todd Sonflieth /
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Two female sage grouse appear to ignore a male strutting at the lek as he tries to attract a mate.

Courtney Flatt