Standing at about two feet tall and carrying upwards of seven pounds of weight, the Greater sage-grouse is crowned with the official title of North America’s largest native grouse.  A remarkably unique looking bird, the burbling sounds reminiscent of a leaky faucet fill each dawn morning during the spring months as males inflate their spherical front-mounted air sacs and vie for the attention of females.

The dramatic act, known as a lekking, is as unique to the ecosystem as the woody and herbaceous species of plants known as Artemisia tridentata, or big sagebrush.  Carving bowl-shaped nests into the soft soil among the sage brush is where female sage grouse rear and raise their young, a sacred site that is now at risk from human interruption by a proposed bill in the Wyoming House of Representatives.

House Bill 271, which the Senate voted to pass in late February, would allow private interests, such as commercial bird farms, to collect and rear Greater sage grouse in captivity.  To facilitate these types of operations, the Bill would allow licensees to collect 250 sage grouse eggs per year from wild populations.

While captive breeding has been utilized in the past to aid species on the brink of extinction, this is not exactly the case in the state of Wyoming.  Despite staggering decreases in sage grouse populations over the past three decades, there is still an estimated 250,000-500,000 sage grouse in Wyoming alone.  In fact, the Cowboy State is currently home to approximately 37 percent of sage grouse populations in North America.

Habitat Loss

Speculative estimates put the Greater sage grouse population in the 1800’s somewhere between 10 and 16 million birds.  As today’s population estimates reveal, these numbers have reduced dramatically, as native habitat has been slowly whittled away over the years.  In addition to wildfires, degradations from commercial activities, mainly from the oil and gas industry, have shrunk the ‘sagebrush sea’ of America’s west to about half of its original size.

The prospect of listing the Greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act is perhaps one of the most significant events for both the bird and its native habitat.  Even though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recognized Wyoming’s state-level management plans as the deciding factor for not listing the birds, the conversation brought forth the attention the issue deserved.

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The Sagebrush Sea. Photo: K. Theule/USFWS

Today, organizations such as the Sage Grouse Initiative are leading the conservation charge, collaborating with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state officials and ranchers to preserve this vital ecosystem.

Many biologists and ornithologists believe that the preservation of this historic habitat is the single best way to preserve and enhance Greater sage grouse numbers of the future.

Science

Personally speaking, I am always interested in the science behind decisions such as this one that undoubtedly affect the wildlife we care so deeply about.  As with the management of any game animal here in North America, these decisions must remain based on sound science rather than commercial or personal interests.

A 2013 research paper by U.S. Geological Survey sage grouse scientist Stephen Knick observed 3,000 leks across a 355,000 square-mile portion of sage grouse habitat and identified that sage grouse are best suited to as little human disturbance as possible.  The study concluded that 99 percent of active leks within the study area were in landscapes that were less than 3 percent developed.  Conversely, historic locations where sage grouse no longer occur were associated with landscapes dominated by more than 10 times the agriculture and more than 25 times the developed land.

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Sage Grouse Lek Southwestern Wyoming. Photo: Katie Theule/USFWS

According to Wyoming Game and Fish Director Scott Talbott, sage grouse will lay anywhere between four and 12 eggs per year, but of those eggs, usually only three to six chicks will hatch.  Begging the question as to whether the native populations of sage grouse can tolerate both the potential human disturbance of raiding nests as well as the dangerous prospect of hens abandoning disrupted nesting sites.

Commercialization of Wildlife

Whether you are a hunter or simply an advocate for wildlife, the commercialization of our wildlife should immediately raise red flags.  Drawing from lessons of the past, historical data highlights the detrimental effects these types of practices, such as market hunting, have had on various species.

After the near extirpation of deer, elk, turkey and many other species, we must remain vigilant in the fight to stop any effort to commercialize our native animals.

While captive breeding may one day have a place in the conservation of these feathered fixtures of the west, any such attempt should remain under the scrutiny of state or federal wildlife management and not in the cradle of commerce.

 

Feature Image: Tom Koerner/USFWS