The male birds are about two feet tall with grayish brown feathers. To attract a hen, the males strut, their white breasts swelling like huge collars to show bright yellow air sacs, their tails fanning to spiky crowns, in a display naturalists describe as "one of the most stirring natural history pageants in the Great Basin."
This scene was once common across sagebrush country in the West. Sage grouse were so numerous that early settlers compared them to the passenger pigeon whose flocks darkened the skies. Only 40 years ago, hunters took them by the dozens. Now sage grouse are disappearing, and scientists are alarmed at what this means for the species and for the health of the high desert on which it depends.
"I'm watching extinction happening right in front of my eyes," says Clait Braun, Avian Research Program Manager of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, who has studied sage grouse for over 25 years. Since 1980, he explains, sage grouse populations have declined as much as 45-82 percent. While still hunted in nine states, the bird is declining in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, California, North and South Dakota. It has vanished completely from Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and British Columbia. In Alberta and Saskatchewan, the Canadian government has listed sage grouse as endangered.
"This is not a natural decline. It's man-induced," says Braun, describing the fragmentation, degradation and loss of sage grouse habitat.
In May, the Bellingham, Washington based Northwest Ecosystem Alliance and Biodiversity Legal Foundation of Boulder, Colorado have filed a petition with Fish & Wildlife Service to list the Washington sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act.
Federal agencies and environmentalists are now taking a hard look at the sage grouse to determine whether it warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act. Whether or not it is listed, saving sage grouse will have far-reaching impacts on the use and management of the sagebrush country many westerners have long taken for granted. Sage grouse may also teach us an important lesson about biology and politics.
Because of their habitat requirements, protecting sage grouse will mean crossing traditional political jurisdictions, thinking beyond state borders and across the fences that separate public and private lands.
"You have to look at the whole enchilada," says San Stiver, a biologist with the Nevada Division of Wildlife. "You couldn't find a better species to look at as a cornerstone species for sagebrush steppe," he says, explaining that healthy sage grouse populations are an indicator of a healthy sagebrush ecosystem. The bird's decline is a sign that the whole landscape is suffering.
For sage grouse, "the whole enchilada" means "huge expanses of territory," says Stiver, because they use different habitat during different seasons.
In winter, the birds need tall sagebrush for food and cover. In spring, they move to areas of scattered sagebrush for their leks the breeding sites to which they return year after year for their charismatic courtship displays and to build nests. Sage grouse hens need grass tall enough to protect nests and chicks from predators, and grasses and other small green plants, called forbs, for food. Summer range is a mix of sagebrush, and the wet meadows and riparian areas that host forbs and insects important to chicks' diets.
To find what they need, sage grouse "may use as much as 800 square miles," says Dr. Jack Connelly of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. These expanses have been encroached upon by farming and grazing, along with housing and commercial development, says Professor John Crawford, a biologist at Oregon State University. Altered fire patterns and the invasion of non-native plants such as cheat grass are also responsible for the loss of sage grouse habitat. Restoration will mean changing practices which have destroyed the natural patterns of vegetation.
Sage grouse require a mosaic of habitat so restoration will "involve different management entities which makes conservation difficult," says Connelly. "We need to protect what's left of the habitat," he says, "and fix what's broken."
This spring and summer, western directors of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management are holding special meetings to review sage grouse management policies and state conservation plans. A status review of the species has been commissioned by American Lands Alliance, a national conservation group. Concurrently, the Fish and Wildlife Service is gathering information to prepare a response in the event a petition is filed for ESA listing of the sage grouse.
"A status review," explains Mark Salvo of American Lands, "is a biological assessment and review of all scientific research on a species." Until a status review is completed, no legal action towards ESA listing can be taken. "But an initial look," says Jasper Carlton of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation, "shows there's a very good likelihood that the sage grouse is biologically threatened in a significant portion of its historically known range. This is a species headed for disaster. Now, not five years from now, is the time to address this."
"I expect someone will file a petition to list sage grouse as threatened or endangered in 1999," says Braun.
If sage grouse is listed under the ESA, it would mean taking management out of states' control, and quite likely federally mandated change in management practices including grazing throughout the birds' range. "If all the states get on board and implement conservation plans on a unified basis, we have a chance of success," says Braun. "If we don't manage for healthy landscapes and allow further degradation and fragmentation, it will lead to extinction."
"We need to have conservation planning across jurisdictions as we've seen for salmon, the spotted owl and desert tortoise," says Stiver.
"My goal," says Braun, "is to try and work with people so they don't get too polarized."
Current conservation plans vary from state to state, and there is concern that without a concerted effort to coordinate and implement restoration immediately, it may be too late to save the sage grouse.
In Colorado, a working group has been meeting since 1995, addressing issues of education, research, and land management issues, to preserve habitat for what biologists believe to be the only sustainable population of Gunnison sage grouse in the world. Working with the state Division of Wildlife, the BLM and Natural Resource Conservation Service, the group's conservation plan completed a year and a half ago, devised for private and public lands, includes bird, plant and soil studies, changing grazing rotations, reducing cattle numbers on some allotments, monitoring stubble height of grass, improving riparian habitat, altering mowing and prescribed burns to encourage vegetation. "I think people are doing what they say," says Sue Navy of the High Country Citizens Alliance. "No one wants to see the bird listed."
In Washington conservation plans involve paying landowners and leasees not to graze and using the Conservation Reserve Program to take remnant shrub steppe (sage grouse habitat) out of agricultural production. According to Michael Schroeder of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. sage grouse seem to be doing well on the Yakima Army Training Center where there's been no grazing for four or five years, and where there's been work "to reduce the impacts of fire."
"Sagebrush has not been managed with sage grouse in mind," says Schroeder. Implementation of restoration plans is imperative, he adds. "The longer we wait, the longer it will take to restore."
Utah and Idaho have completed some conservation plans, but implementation has not yet begun. Nevada will start its planning process this summer. Other sage grouse states are just getting to work.
"We don't like where sage grouse numbers are," says Stiver, "so we'll enact conservation plans whether or not a petition is filed." Idaho has four working groups, each in different parts of the state. As elsewhere, these groups include biologists, ranchers, farmers, sportsmen and conservationists. "Everyone realizes we've got a problem," says Connelly. "We're in agreement that we want to do something now rather than wait for federal intervention."
Working groups are voluntary, and some like Tom Cade of the North American Falconers Association, a hunting group concerned about the decline of sage grouse and loss of habitat, worry that "not much of anything is happening on the ground." Cade is impressed with the dedication of the Idaho groups but says "the problem is, these groups have no political power."
"We're hoping states can get things happening so we won't have to list the bird, but that may not happen," says Cade.
While agency biologists and others want to avoid ESA listing, fearing it might be politically divisive, Braun admits that "there is some truth that listing would be good in the long run." One federal biologist who asked not to be named said, "I can't imagine a bunch of voluntary efforts effecting the sort of needed change on public land happening out here on the sage brush."
Conservationists, agency scientists, hunters and other Westerners agree that restoring sage grouse will require cooperation between state and federal agencies as well as private landowners. To do so, they say, will require an informed public, a redistribution of resources, and the political will to enact conservation measures.