Saving the Sage Grouse

Sage grouse populations have fallen to only a fraction of their historic records

12-01-2002 // Rene Ebersole

TAKE ONE LOOK at a male sage grouse performing his mating dance--his spiky tail feathers erected, yellow eye combs flashing and olive green air sacs ballooning from his chest--and you will know why Meriwether Lewis and William Clark dubbed it the "cock of the plains." But like so many other creatures chronicled in great numbers by Lewis and Clark, sage grouse populations have fallen to only a fraction of their historic records.

The culprit: widespread conversion of sagebrush habitat for agriculture. "We are approaching a strategic moment where extraordinary action will need to be taken to effectively protect the bird and its habitat," says Ben Deeble, sage grouse coordinator in NWF's Northern Rockies Project Office. "Failing that, it's likely that the sage grouse will be listed as an endangered species."

The range of North America's largest grouse encompasses millions of acres in 11 states. A range-wide listing of the sage grouse would be potentially the most sweeping endangered species listing of our time. "To my knowledge," says Deeble, "there is no other species that is found over such a wide area in this country." However, an endangered species listing could supplant vital state and local efforts to save the grouse.

Instead of listing the species, Deeble says, "we need to have the federal land managers make sage grouse and their habitats a priority both for restoration and conservation, and we need them to work with state agencies and local people to develop plans and take actions that are effective."

Though the listing is still under consideration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management did recently adopt a "no net loss" policy for sage grouse and its habitat in order to maintain and increase the abundance and distribution of the bird. "This is important," Deeble explains, "because it commits the agencies to protect the sage grouse where they are abundant and doing well, but also where they are in decline and likely to wink out. It's the first time the agencies have acknowledged that the bird should not disappear from a large part of its range and the first time they're expressed a willingness to achieve that without an endangered species listing."

In the meantime, NWF is helping to monitor and conserve the sage grouse and its habitat under a program called "Adopt-A-Lek." This year, the program was dramatically expanded in Montana, Wyoming and Nevada, and further expansions are in the works for 2003. The program recruits and trains volunteers to census grouse populations and monitor habitats. "We think it's very important that local people get involved and invested in this issue," says Deeble. "It's pretty common for me to encounter ranchers and others who care deeply about the bird and remember how abundant it used to be. We need help from those people now to turn this population decline around."

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