The greater sage grouse is an iconic species in the West. Because of its considerable size (it is the largest species of warbler in North America) and its tenacity on the wings when flushed, the bird is beloved by intrepid mountain hunters. But the species has been in decline across much of its current range, which stretches from southern Canada to Colorado, California and Nevada.
The sage grouse is an obligate species, meaning it can only survive in the type of habitat sage grouse evolved to call home. Because of this, it is often the first game to disappear when sagebrush ecosystems in the West are marginalized by development, invasive weeds, drought, and wildfires. In 2018, a report from the United States Geological Survey showed that sage-grouse populations declined 80 percent in the past six decades—and nearly 40 percent since 2002.
Consequently, hunting opportunities for this iconic western bird have been severely limited. Limits on bag numbers and season dates have been enacted in hopes of preventing further population declines and avoiding a possible listing of the grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) – which would end the hunt of sage and would bring the species under federal control. In 2015, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service decided that ESA protection for the greater sage grouse was not warranted. But in states like Wyoming, where sage-grouse habitat makes up a significant part of the landscape, there is an underlying fear that that decision could eventually be overturned.
A new population survey offers some welcome news. In Wyoming, the most recent elk counts show that its mushroom population is “stabilizing.” This comes despite predictions — based on 2021 hunter harvest data — that bird numbers will continue to decline for the sixth year in a row. State officials say the increase has a lot to do with changing weather conditions from year to year. “The moisture was a welcome boost for sage grouse,” Nyssa Whitford, a biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said in a news release. “Drought conditions affected bird survival during the summer last year, which in turn affected the population. This year, improved habitat conditions contributed to helping stabilize sage grouse populations.
This year’s spring survey showed an average of 17.9 men per active lek. On a national scale, 16,740 men were observed in 87 percent of known and occupied leks. All told, this amounts to a 6 percent increase over last spring’s calculations. The department says it’s part of a natural ebb and flow “influenced by weather and climate, which in turn affects the availability of food and cover in the sagebrush ecosystem.”
According to the WGFD, greater sagebrush populations follow a cyclical trend. “Studies show that Wyoming’s population cycles every six to eight years,” Whitford said. “So we were pleased to see a slight increase this year and anticipate seeing more in the years to come.” Because sage grouse rely heavily on habitat connectivity, and populations suffer when sagebrush ecosystems are fragmented, WGFD is investing as much money as it can in protecting the state’s sagebrush stands. “Habitat projects that build resilience in the ecosystem are a priority,” Whitford said.
What does the future hold for sage grouse in the West?
As Director of the Public Lands Center for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), Madeleine West regularly attends annual grouse surveys across the 11-state range of sage grouse. “It’s good that these are important [in Wyoming] they are until this year,” West said Field & Flow. “I don’t put too much faith in any annual report, whether it’s low or high, because looking at the long-term trend is really the most important thing.”
The long-term trend shows cyclical population highs that aren’t as high as they used to be—and population declines that are lower now than they were historically. She says the same types of habitat degradation that adversely affect sage grouse—large, hot-burning fires, housing and energy development, and the spread of invasive weeds—are also affecting other game species. dependent on sage, such as mule deer and pronghorn antelope. “It’s really a big connected system,” she said. “And the sage grouse is the canary in the coal mine for the health of that ecosystem.”
Read further: Will releasing captive-bred sage grouse help or hurt declining populations?
Whether or not the West is able to sustain a brighter future for sagebrush and the countless species that rely on it for survival will depend on our willingness and ability to protect that priceless ecosystem for the long term. “Population trends are heavily influenced by factors beyond anyone’s control, such as drought, temperature and weather,” she said. “That’s why it’s really important to be extra diligent in addressing the factors driving population trends that we can control. Doing good habitat restoration and management to slow the spread of annual weeds and wildfires is critical. And we should try to prevent habitat degradation in the first place.”