Sage grouse strut
through rites of spring
populations ‘tick upward’
Express Staff Writer
spring, the sagebrush desert across Southern Idaho comes alive with the
peculiar and distinctive mating behavior of the sage grouse.
time of year when the birds gather at historic mating grounds, called leks,
and can be counted by wildlife managers with any kind of accuracy. And
though sage grouse populations are only at a fraction of their historic
grandeur across the West, the peculiar birds have shown a recent increase
across Idaho after years of decline.
A flock of sage grouse gather on a
lek, also known as a booming ground, where the males establish dominance among the group and display mating behavior to attract females.
Express photo by Willy Cook
cracks in southern Blaine County’s blue-green Picabo Hills, breezes
report the soothing scent of a nearby rain infused with the distinct aroma
of sage. Lingering snow drifts cling to north facing ridges, and the
desert is calm.
edge of a thick stand of sagebrush, where the high desert is more meadow
than brush, a small group of peculiar looking birds march around,
oblivious to their audience, performing age-old songs and dances.
highly ritualized display, the male rears back, quickly draws his wings
across the stiff feathers of the ruff several times, producing a swishing
sound, and makes a couple of extraordinarily loud, liquid ‘plops’ that
are amplified through the air sacs and can be heard as much as three miles
strut is repeated endlessly, eight or ten times a minute during the
busiest display period after dawn. Now imagine dozens and dozens of males,
all swishing and plopping away like mad, and you'll begin to understand
why sage grouse courtship is considered one of the great wildlife
spectacles on the continent," writes wildlife author Scott Weidensaul.
captivating display of avian flirtation 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 turned day to night.
passenger pigeon became extinct when the last one died in a Cleveland
museum in 1914. And, for the past several decades, sage grouse numbers
have been declining, and scientists are worried about what this means for
the species—and for the health of the high desert on which it depends.
sage grouse populations have declined 45 to 82 percent. The bird is
declining in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming,
Montana, California, North Dakota and South Dakota. It has vanished
completely from Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska, and
British Columbia. In Alberta and Saskatchewan, the Canadian government has
listed sage grouse as endangered.
sage grouse are in trouble," according to an educational pamphlet
distributed by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. "Populations of
the bird are plummeting in the state, as wildfire, agricultural expansion,
herbicides, prescribed fire, grazing and rangeland seedings have nibbled
away at its habitat. In some areas of the state, up to 80 percent of the
habitat vital to these birds has been destroyed."
habitat is improved, according to Fish and Game, sage grouse may be doomed
in many parts of the state.
grouse habitat is not as good as it used to be, and there is not as good
of cover," said Fish and Game Conservation Officer Roger Olson, based
in Hailey. "There are so many ifs in this thing, it’s tough to put
your finger on any one thing. The factors are very interrelated."
motors into the Picabo Hills on a sage grouse population survey this
spring, Fish and Game Conservation Officer Lee Garwood explains that only
three of eight historic leks in the area are frequented by sage grouse any
more. However, the numbers of sage grouse using each lek are slowly
observations jive with department-wide statistics.
Game’s game bird manager, Tom Hemker, told the Idaho Fish and Game
Commission in March that statewide sage grouse chick production has been
good in three of the last six years. The overall trend in that period
showed an increase, he said.
leks show an increase in areas where hunting seasons are short or do not
occur, he said.
department studies in southern Idaho this spring to determine if predators
have a significant effect on sage grouse populations, Hemker noted that
wildfires, loss of sagebrush and the influx of cheat grass are major
limiting factors in the recovery of sage grouse in Idaho.
grouse will strut at the leks from March to early June, and females
generally arrive on the "booming grounds" between April and May.
Hens usually stay at leks for two to three days while they choose a male
to mate with. About 90 per cent of the hens mate with one of several
dominant males, the most dominant of which is called the master cock.
hens must travel several miles from the lek to find a dense patch of sage,
which must be thick and tall enough to protect the nest and the eggs from
predators. Golden eagles, hawks, coyotes, foxes, badgers and raccoons,
among others, prey on eggs and chicks.
usually hatch 37 days after being laid.
monitors two lek routes each spring, one near Shoshone and the other near
Picabo. The number of leks in use on the Picabo route could increase if
the number of birds in the region continues to climb, he said.
determine their range, sage grouse "may use as much as 800 square
miles," says Fish and Game sage grouse biologist Jack Connelly.
expanses have been encroached upon by farming and grazing, along with
housing and commercial development. Altered fire patterns and the invasion
of non-native plants, such as cheat grass, are also responsible for the
loss of sage grouse habitat.
could mean changing practices which have destroyed the natural patterns of
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 and fix