Adventures Afield

Getting down on the ground with grouse

08-01-2003 // Deborah Richie Oberbillig

TWENTY-FOUR male sage grouse are parading against a cerulean sky in the first morning light. I watch their chests puffing, olive green air sacs inflating and tails fanning as they assemble to dance on their spring mating grounds. I roll down the car window to let in the chill air and what sounds like corks popped from champagne bottles as the males compress their mighty air sacs. One of 80 volunteer citizen scientists recruited this year by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) to take part in its Adopt-a-Lek program, I am stationed in a remote area in western Montana where sage grouse gather to perform their mating rituals—in leks, as the groups are called. Like other volunteers, I am counting the birds, making observations about their habitat and searching for new leks.

The information we gather about the bird’s population and habitat trends will allow state and federal wildlife managers to zero in on the problems facing the sage grouse and find solutions that address the bird’s dwindling population, which has dropped from a historic two million to only about 200,000 today. “This is a pivotal moment for sage grouse conservation,” says Ben Deeble, sage grouse coordinator in NWF’s Northern Rockies Project Office, who started the Adopt-a-Lek program in 1998 in Montana with help from a local bird club. The program has since expanded to Wyoming and Nevada.

The efforts undertaken to save these birds and their habitat also means helping to conserve hundreds of other species because sage grouse—which can range more than 600 square miles in a year—need large, unfragmented grassland landscapes. “If you care about wildflowers, if you care about prairie creeks, if you care about golden eagles and pronghorn, then you should care about sage grouse,” says Deeble. In fact, some 100 bird and 70 mammal species depend upon these grasslands, which once stretched unbroken across the western plains of southern Canada and the United States. Many of these species are found nowhere else in the world. But protecting vast tracts of this habitat is no easy task. Sage grasslands—tilled, drilled, burned, overgrazed and subdivided—have already shrunk by half in the last century.

Although the largest grouse in North America might appear an unlikely candidate for a long-distance haul, these seven-pound adults can flap and glide across entire mountain ranges. Hens and chicks will walk as far as 20 miles a month in search of leafy plants and insects. In summer, the grouse seek out creeks, wet meadows and springs. But in spring, birds assemble in open areas close to nesting grounds, where hens can find plants high in calcium and tall sagebrush—a protein-rich winter staple also used for cover.

It takes many eyes to spot a lek and count the birds, and there’s only a 30-day window of opportunity in April, the peak time for sage grouse strutting, in which to do it. With far too few wildlife biologists to cover the terrain, trained volunteers—like the mother of five, electrician, coach, mill worker and two firefighters also in the field—can help because more people means more leks can be visited and counted. “It’s the best way to obtain accurate data,” says Deeble.

Results of the counts at leks are already proving useful. For example, one lek in southwest Montana once hosted up to 60 males in the 1970s. Volunteers this season recorded only 20 males. Pinpointing threatened areas helps wildlife managers focus on conservation measures, such as altering cattle grazing and eradicating exotic plants.

This year, a volunteer in southwest Wyoming discovered a previously unknown lek with 40 strutting males. Mark Winland, the state’s Adopt-a-Lek coordinator and a schoolteacher, admires the fortitude of his 20 unpaid helpers: “One individual drove 800 miles checking leks in the predawn hours,” he says. “Last year’s 14 participants logged 3,247 miles and counted birds on 64 leks.”

In Wyoming’s Powder River Basin near Winland’s home, volunteers are keeping an eye on sage grouse with a shaky future. Oil and gas companies have targeted this area for coal bed methane drilling. Methane—or natural gas—trapped by water pressure within underground coal deposits is captured by drilling and pumping out the water via a dense network of wells.

If allowed to move forward, the operation, already approved by the Bureau of Land Management and blessed by the Bush administration, will add an estimated 66,000 new wells in Wyoming and Montana—covering an area the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut. The new wells would be spaced at eight per square mile and linked by 27,000 miles of roads and 53,000 miles of pipelines and overhead electrical lines—giving hawks and eagles perfect perches for preying on grouse. Roads and pipelines will further bring in invasive, nonnative plants and break up habitat, and pumping millions of gallons of water from the aquifer in an arid country has many local ranchers worried.

Winland suspects that this intense development in the basin could have a severely detrimental effect on an already declining sage grouse population. “One well disturbs a small amount of surface, but cumulative development is death by a thousand cuts,” he says. “We’re taking a pulse on what’s happening out there. The more people we can get on the ground looking at birds and building appreciation, the better.”

While coal bed methane drilling is the primary threat to habitat in northeast Wyoming and southeast Montana, cheatgrass takes center stage in Nevada. This introduced species crowds out native grasses and turns into a tinder-dry fuel in summer that burns so hot it kills sagebrush. “We’re losing our sagebrush all across Interstate 80,” says Nevada Adopt-a-Lek coordinator Gale Dupree, who works closely with the state wildlife agency’s volunteer monitoring program. At stake in Nevada are more than 600 recorded leks.

In the process of collecting data to help fight these threats, many of the volunteers develop a strong affinity for the birds they’re watching. Others felt such an affinity long before joining the project. Montana volunteer Jean Smith told me that she still vividly remembers the first time she saw sage grouse strutting. The year was 1958. A then graduate student at the University of Wyoming and a newcomer to the West, she recalls, “We drove into the sagebrush 30 or 40 miles north of Laramie. We were told that these birds would dance until the sun comes up and then melt away. I settled down in a ditch where I could hide but still see the birds. When I peeked over the sagebrush, I couldn’t believe it—there were some 100 grouse packed together.” Today, that lek is just a memory. The birds have vanished. Smith is now a retired biology professor in Helena, Montana, with a passion for conservation and watching sage grouse behavior. “It’s the best show in the world,” she says.

As the birds slip off from my assigned lek site this Easter morning, a fellow volunteer and I scan one more time for any females lurking in the sagebrush. Our tally remains at 24 males. Apparently, the females have flown off to start nesting, but their absence doesn’t deter the strutting males from lunging, sidling and sidestepping one another. And all the while, that liquid popping of corks swirled away.

Deborah Richie Oberbillig writes from Montana.

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