Sage Grouse Spying

I’ve hiked through hundreds of miles of sage grouse habitat (aka sagebrush) without seeing many of them, and I’d never seen the elaborate male strutting during mating season. I vaguely knew that sage grouse were considered by some to be a threatened species. So a Friends of Nevada Wilderness announcement about a Nevada Department of Wilderness volunteer sage grouse survey program caught my eye, and I figured I could learn what I’ve been missing and see some amazing birds.

My first lesson is that sage grouse are early birds (though not worm eaters). Their mating grounds are called “leks“, probably from a Swedish verb att leka, “to play”. And they like their play to be in full swing when the sun rises, so watchers have to arrive before sunrise to avoid spooking them. No wonder I’ve never witnessed it! Our group meets at 4 AM to reach the leks in time.

When we arrive at the first lek I scan the sagebrush with my binoculars fruitlessly, but eventually my eye picks up a white spot, then another. They are bobbing up and down, emitting strange musical popping sounds. We move to a better position, and I count five. It’s clear I could use some more powerful binoculars, but I keep trying and come up with a high count of 17 males. Our instructor counts 35 – this will take some practice.

Moving to another lek, the instructor lets us loose to take pictures where there are a number of birds along a road. I know I will not take a good picture, but the urge to try is undeniable. There are many good pictures to be found, but I enjoy taking some bad pictures and video.

Strutting sage grouse in the (gasp) sagebrush

The birds are less freaked out by vehicles than people on foot, so we observe from the car when possible. It’s less romantic than what I imagined, but it works.

Our last lek has a great view of the Sweetwater mountains.

Spotting by the Sweetwater mountains

We walk a ways into this lek to examine the signs left by the birds. I learn that adult sage grouse eat sagebrush exclusively, but have no gizzard and can’t digest all the oils and fiber in the plant, so they regurgitate those parts as “cecal matter” that can be found on the ground at leks.

Sage grouse cecal matter

The sexes also have distinctly shaped droppings, with a “J” shape indicating a male.

To finish we have a classroom session and some GPS training. I learn that the sage grouse status is “precluded” on the endangered species list, meaning they are not protected under the endangered species act yet. There are many estimates of the total population on the web as around 200,000, but the only source (NatureServe) I’ve found that cites a study gives an “order of magnitude” accuracy to a 2010 estimate of 536,000, which means it could be anywhere from 100,000 to 1,000,000. Even at the high end it would be possible for a surveyor to observe a percentage of all existing birds in a season.

The big question around the sage grouse is whether it will eventually be listed as endangered. The status is described on NatureServe:

Widely distributed and still relatively common in the core of the range in western and central North America; range has contracted significantly and now encompasses about 56% of the potential pre-settlement distribution; abundance has declined, primarily as a result of loss, fragmentation, and degradation of sagebrush habitat; rate of decline decreased significantly after 1985, but the number of males per lek and the number of active leks continue to decline, and the species is significantly threatened by loss, fragmentation, and degradation of sagebrush habitat now and for the foreseeable future.

If it is listed there will be big impacts on energy development, ranching, and recreation. It will make a lot of people angry and have a big economic impact. It might well be cheaper to implement enough conservation measures to prevent the listing, but measures so far have not been enough. The ultimate question may be whether it’s worth the cost to save this strange bird, but that question will probably go unanswered except through the pronouncements of our current legal system.

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