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For the week of April 24 - 30, 2002


Sage grouse strut through rites of spring

Southern Idaho populations ‘tick upward’

Express Staff Writer

Every spring, the sagebrush desert across Southern Idaho comes alive with the peculiar and distinctive mating behavior of the sage grouse.

It’s this 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

As dawn 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.

Near the 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.

"In a 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 away.

"The 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.

This 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.

The 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.

Since 1980, 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.

"Idaho’s 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."

Unless habitat is improved, according to Fish and Game, sage grouse may be doomed in many parts of the state.

"Sage 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."

As he 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 ticking upward.

And Garwood’s observations jive with department-wide statistics.

Fish and 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.

Counts on leks show an increase in areas where hunting seasons are short or do not occur, he said.

Despite 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.

Male sage 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.

Sometimes 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.

Eggs usually hatch 37 days after being laid.

Garwood 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.

To determine their range, sage grouse "may use as much as 800 square miles," says Fish and Game sage grouse biologist Jack Connelly.

These 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.

Restoration could 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 and fix what's broken."


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.