|Sage grouse populations in decline|
The Greater Sage-grouse and the Bistate Sage-grouse: What's the fuss?The population of sage-grouse is rapidly declining. The New York Times, not quoting a source, reported that their numbers have declined from 16 million a hundred years ago to somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000. Nobody argues that the sage-grouse has been decimated in recent decades. The main culprit has been loss of habitat. Roads, cities, villages, development, fire and invasive plants have all taken their toll. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has concluded that both the Great Sage-grouse, found in 11 Western states and nine Nevada counties, and the Bistate Sage-grouse, a genetically distinct bird found in five Nevada counties, warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act. The bird hasn’t been formally added to the list, however, because the FWS has found that it needs to take action on other species facing more immediate extinction threats. FWS is going to re-examine the Bistate Sage-grouse’s status in September 2013 and the Greater Sage-grouse in September 2015.The sage-grouse is a large bird – up to 30 inches long and two feet tall – that depends on sagebrush for survival. The females are mottled brown, black and white, and the larger male birds have yellow eye combs, a black throat and bib and a large, white ruff on their breast. They also have olive-green air sacs and elongated tails that they use when they are strutting around the mating grounds in elaborate courtship displays.
How many different types of sage-grouse are there?
There are three varieties of sage-grouse – the Greater Sage-grouse, which occupies areas throughout the West; the Gunnison Sage-grouse, which is a genetically separate, smaller form of the bird found in Colorado; and the Bistate Sage-grouse, which is also genetically different and found along the the Nevada-California border in Mineral County. Currently, greater sage-grouse are found in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, eastern California, Nevada, Utah, western Colorado, South Dakota and Wyoming and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan and occupy approximately 56 percent of their historical range.
The sage-grouse is a large bird – up to 30 inches long and two feet tall – that depends on sagebrush for survival. The females are mottled brown, black and white, and the larger male birds have yellow eye combs, a black throat and bib and a large, white ruff on their breast. They also have olive-green air sacs and elongated tails that they use when they are strutting around the mating grounds in elaborate courtship displays.
During the breeding season, roughly March through May, the males get together on relatively open areas called leks. Leks are near potential nesting and brood-rearing sites. When they hit a lek, the boys start strutting around, puffing up their chests, spreading their tail feathers and generally behaving like they own the world. The guys with the best plumage and biggest air sacs (careful now) get the best positions and the most females. Males and females don’t pair up to raise the young, however, and the females are notoriously loose, mating with more than one male.The females lay 6-8 eggs and incubate them for 25-27 days. The poults can fly in just a week or two, and before long they are flying off with the moms to find wet meadows, where they can find the forbs and insects they need to grow big and strong.
Sometimes the birds fly up to 30 miles to find these summertime getaways, sometimes even longer, taking a day or two. Between August and December, they move into winter habitat – that perfect mix of sagebrush that give them food and cover through the winter. Low sagebrush, black sagebrush, rabbitbrush, antelope bitterbrush and horsebrush also give them the habitats they like.
Sage-grouse are particularly fond of big sagebrush , silver sagebrush, and threetip sagebrush. Forbs including prairie dandelion, milkvetch, prickly lettuce, microsteris, and evening primrose are also high on the menu. They also eat ants, bees, wasps, grasshoppers and beetles. The beetles make such a satisfying crunch!
What is NWP doing to help the bird?
We have two scientists who spend at least part of their time working to help improve sage-grouse habitat. Leading the way is Gregg Tanner, a 30-year veteran of the Nevada Department of Wildlife. Gregg attends meetings, reviews projects, works with state officials on conservation plans and meets with private landowners who own wet meadows used by sage-grouse in the summer. Gregg talks to them about the possibility of conservation easements, which would keep the habitat safe for sage-grouse for generations to come and which an increasing number of landowners are expressing an interest in. Gregg is also on hand for events like public hearings for the Douglas County Lands Bill, which will protect key sage-grouse habitat in the Burbank Canyons if its approved by Congress.
Gregg is often joined in his sage-grouse efforts by Craig Mortimore, who is our renewable energy coordinator but who in a previous career worked with the Nevada Department of Wildlife and knows a thing or two about sage-grouse.State and federal officials know that addressing land-management practices that have caused the bird to decline will require a Herculean-level of cooperation among the state’s public, private and NGO experts. That’s one role NWP plays; as Tanner (left, working with a Fish and Wildlife land manager at the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge) puts it, “We try to make sure all the right people are working on the issue.”
A key part of this effort is mapping sage grouse habitat and leks, something our guys have worked on, and restore habitat that may have been lost. We review energy development plans and other projects to see if they are encroaching on key sage-grouse habitat, and when necessary, we’ll sit down with developers and try to convince them to make changes that will help the bird. We did that with a large transmission line when we convince the developers to change their route to avoid a lek.