Sage Grouse: The Spotted Owl of the Desert
Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 2000. Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books. pp. 58-60.
The sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) is a species that can't tolerate destruction of its sagebrush steppe habitat any more than the spotted owl can tolerate destruction of its old-growth forest habitat.
About the size of a small turkey, sage grouse once occurred in fourteen western states and three provinces. It has been extirpated from several jurisdictions. Scientists have recently reclassified the species. The old western and eastern
subspecies that were both thought to occur in Oregon are no longer accepted. A newly classified species, the Gunnison (to be called Centrocercus minimus), is found in Colorado and Utah. All other sage grouse are now known as the northern sage grouse (C. urophasianus).
Wherever there was sagebrush, there were sage grouse. The bird relies on its namesake 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 had been destroyed by 1951, and the trend has continued. Sage grouse chicks, for the first month of life, rely on riparian areas, where they feed on insects. Cow-blasted riparian areas means fewer sage grouse.
From October to May, the sage grouse dines exclusively on sagebrush, as the evergreen leaves are nutritious through the winter. In the late spring and summer, the grouse switch to herbaceous plants and grasses. Young grouse especially will eat insects, in particular grasshoppers (locusts!) when abundant.
The mating ritual is fascinating to observe. In the early spring, the larger and more strikingly marked males congregate each dawn at leks (assembly areas for courtship), 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 openings (0.1 to10 acres) in the sagebrush that are used only for display and copulation, never for eating and nesting. The males strut among the females with tailfeathers fully erect 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 the wings drooping slightly. The grouse 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-coooo-poinh) while exposing yellowish skin patches on the chest. Males also do a "dance" in which they aggressively brush each other.
The males fail in the family values department, however: 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 remaining habitat.
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 that lowers water tables and dries out wet meadows and other valuable sage grouse feeding habitat.
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 (in areas 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 that grow among the sagebrush. 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 sage grouse nesting cover from predators such as coyotes and ravens. The more grass cover, the better the chances of the eggs avoiding predation. In fact, the standing dead grass from previous years provides critically important cover. Yes, it is true: sage grouse need old-growth grass.
Sage grouse populations are in long-term 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's probably related to drought cycles. It is clear, however, that the good years aren't as good as they used to be and that the bad years are getting worse.
The sage grouse was also in decline in the 1930s. It rebounded, primarily because of effective restrictions on hunting and excessive predator control rather than any major habitat conservation or restoration. Hunting pressures have decreased; habitat elimination, fragmentation, and degradation have not.
Fortunately, the sage grouse is at least as mediagenic as the spotted owl.
Under the Endangered Species Act, a species can be listed as either threatened or endangered. An endangered species is one that is in imminent danger of extinction unless action is taken. A threatened species is one that can be foreseen as becoming endangered with extinction if nothing is done. The sage grouse certainly qualifies as threatened. It is not yet down to a few birds in the wild like the California condor, but it is heading in that direction.
By acting now, we can begin to reverse the loss of habitat and bring back this magnificent bird not only from the brink, but to healthy huntable levels.
Viewing Sage Grouse
You can view sage grouse strutting their stuff—and if you are lucky, actual sex (don't blink)—during April and May.
From OR 205 about 27 miles north of Frenchglen (about 11 miles south of the turnoff to the Malheur Field Station/Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters), go west on the road with a sign that says "Foster Flat 32 (miles)." It is just south of milepost 34. Go 8.4 miles on this road. The road will bend toward the southeast, and you'll be pointed directly at Steens Mountain. There will be two small juniper-covered buttes off to your left in the short-middle distance. The sage grouse are directly off the road to the left about 50 to 200 feet.
The best time to see them is between first light and sunrise. Eighty birds once were commonly observed. Now it's twenty to thirty
It is taboo to get out of your vehicle! If you want to take a picture and you don't have the lens for it, tough feces. Go buy one and come back later.
Daily human disturbances on sage grouse leks could cause reduction in mating, and some reduction in total production. If flushed, grouse usually fly from the strutting ground and do not return again that day. Some leks are known to the public and are visited by photographers and other interested persons to watch the annual courtship rituals. Such activities need to be curtailed if they disrupt mating. Grouse are tolerant of automobiles and may be watched from fairly close range if the observers do not leave their vehicles. But the instant a person leaves a vehicle the grouse become alarmed and generally take flight, not to return again until the next day. Fortunately the mating season is fairly long (up to 2 months) so receptive hens will usually be mated.