Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Sage Grouse: the Spotted Owl of the Desert

By Andy Kerr

Column #24 - Go to next column

Length: 747 words

Published: 19 June 1997, Wallowa County Chieftain

The sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) is a species that can't tolerate destruction of its sagebrush habitat any more than the spotted owl can tolerate the destruction of its old growth forest habitat.

About the size of a small turkey, sage grouse used to range 14 western states and three provinces. It has been extirpated from several jurisdictions. Wherever there was sagebrush, there was sage grouse. The bird relies on its name sake for cover, shelter and food. As sagebrush habitats have been converted to fields of alfalfa, wheat, crested wheatgrass or houses, the sage grouse has declined. Fifty percent of the sage grouse habitat was destroyed by 1951 and the trend continued.

From October to May the sage grouse dines exclusively on sagebrush as the evergreen is nutritious through the winter. In the late spring and summer, the species switches to herbaceous plants and grasses. Young grouse especially will eat insects, in particular grasshoppers (locusts!) when in abundance.

The mating ritual is fascinating to observe. In the early spring, the larger and more colorful males congregate each dawn at leks where they undertake elaborate rituals of display to entice the females to mate with them. All will gather again in the evening and often will pull an all-nighter when the moon is bright.

The leks are small (0.1-10 ac.) openings in the sage used only for display and copulation; never for eating and nesting. The males strut among the females with tailfeathers fully erected and fanned and head and neck held high. The yellow comb over each eye is expanded, the sagging chest sac partly filled with air, and their wings are slightly drooping. They take in, and rapidly exhale, a large volume of air and make a unique and unforgettable sound (one authority has described it as "swish-swish-coo-oo-poink") while exposing yellowish skin patches on the male's chest. Males also do a dance where they brush each other.

The males fail in the family values department: after mating they play no role in raising the chicks.

Even if the sagebrush habitat is not eliminated outright, the sage grouse still suffers from the degradation of the habitat that remains.

Sage grouse experts describe the species' optimum "loafing" habitat as stream bottoms, ravines and draws. The same optimum loafing habitat of livestock. By eating or otherwise destroying streamside vegetation, livestock cause gully erosion which lowers water tables and dries out wet meadows and other valuable feeding habitat for sage grouse.

Domestic livestock also harm sage grouse in at least two other critically important ways. While livestock grazing has increased the ratio of sagebrush to grass where sagebrush habitat hasn't been intentionally eliminated for other land uses, the limiting factor for the sage grouse is not the sagebrush, but the forbs and grasses. Livestock eat the forbs and other herbaceous material that the sage grouse require in spring and summer.

Livestock also turn the tall grass into short grass, so it doesn't provide adequate cover for the nests from predators such as coyotes and ravens. The more grass cover the better the chances of the egg avoiding predation. In fact, the standing dead grass from previous years provides critically important cover. Yes, it's true: sage grouse need old growth grass.

Long-term, sage grouse populations are in decline. Complicating the lives of biologists monitoring the species is that several factors, including some not clearly understood, result in populations that vary greatly from year to year. Sage grouse have very good years and very bad years. It is clear however, that the good years aren't as good as they use to be and the bad years are getting worse.

The sage grouse was also in decline in the 1930s. It rebounded, due primarily to effective restrictions on hunting, rather than any major habitat conservation or restoration. While hunting pressures have decreased, habitat elimination and degradation has not.

Fortunately, the sage grouse is at least as mediagenic as the spotted owl.

Under the Endangered Species Act, a species can be listed either as threatened or endangered. A threatened species is one that can be foreseen as becoming endangered with extinction if nothing is done. The sage grouse certainly qualifies. It's not yet down to a few birds in the wild like the California condor.

By acting now, we can begin to reverse the loss of habitat and bring back this magnificent bird not only from heading toward the brink, but to healthy huntable levels.

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