Protecting the kings of the sagebrush landscape


Their springtime mating song-and-dance makes the greater sage-grouse rooster an icon of Wyoming. I will never forget the first time I was able to observe the springtime dance during the sage-grouse breeding season. I was with my husband glassing a grassy ridge counting birds at a lek (where a group of roosters gather to put on competitive displays to attract hens).

The sun was just starting to rise over the Wind River Range, and in the crisp April morning air their outlandish sounds broke the silence. I was in awe watching them strutting, doing their dances with their tails fanned for display and inflating the bright yellow fleshy air sacs for the hens. Witnessing this annual event was what motivates me to understand conservation of this symbolic species.

As an active upland bird hunter, I take a great interest in knowing how the local grouse population is faring each year. When thinking about the conservation of a species, a lot of people disregard hunting. As with many other game species, sage-grouse hunting is a crucial way to tell how the species is doing since hunters assist with collecting and submitting wing samples.

If you’ve ever grouse hunted, you’ve probably noticed Wyoming Game and Fish Department wing barrels near hunting areas. The feather molting pattern of the collected wings can tell wildlife managers a lot! According to Pinedale Region’s wildlife coordinator Brandon Scurlock, the molting patterns of the wings collected allow managers to determine the age and sex of harvested sage-grouse and can estimate the yearly hatch success.

This reproduction estimate is figured from birds harvested during hunting season that are hens and juveniles. In the Upper Green River Basin ratios of about 1.3 chicks per hen or greater indicates an increasing population. Managers use the data collected to help determine factors influencing annual population fluctuations, which in turn helps inform conservation needs.

Many of the local agencies all work toward the same conservation goals for the species. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service uses its Sage Grouse Initiative group to work with ranchers to generate ideas to benefit both cattle herds and sage-grouse.

Sage-grouse have lost more than half of the original sagebrush ecosystem they inhabitant over the years. The major causes for loss of habitat are the conversion of shrublands to conifer woodlands, human development and the spread of invasive grasses. Removal of conifers that encroach on sagebrush ecosystems helps decrease mortalities from predatory birds while ensuring that breeding and nesting grounds are maintained. Invasive grasses can take over entire sagebrush ecosystems, leaving grouse with no habitat or food sources. Sage-grouse nest on the ground under sagebrush, which provides cover for nests and fledglings. By spraying herbicide and certifying hay we can do our part to prevent the spread of these grasses.

Other conservation practices might include landowners entering conservation easements that prevent urban development, installing bird ramps in water tanks, placing fence and power-line markers and creating grazing rotations. By working together, Sublette County Conservation District partners and landowners are helping conserve these kings of the sagebrush landscape.

If you have any questions regarding sage-grouse or their habitat or are interested in opportunities to conserve the species on your property, feel free to reach out to the Sublette County Conservation District at 307-367-2364, or 217 County Club Lane, Pinedale.