Sage-Grouse: Ambassador for the Sagebrush Sea
Greater sage-grouse in Dubois, Idaho. (©Jean Bjerke)
Mark Salvo, Federal Lands Policy Analyst
When they’re not engaged in their flamboyant spring mating displays, greater sage-grouse spend the rest of year making a living on vast sagebrush grasslands in the West called the “Sagebrush Sea.” In fact, sage-grouse cannot survive without sagebrush, and they need lots of it. This makes sage-grouse an ideal “umbrella” species for sagebrush habitats.
Sagebrush: More than two dozen varieties of sagebrush occur in the American West, growing in delicate balance with other shrubs, trees, bunchgrasses and wildflowers and providing habitat for sage-grouse and hundreds of other fish and wildlife species. (©Scott Smith)
Umbrella species typically require large expanses of healthy habitat to survive. Because of that requirement, protecting these species also benefits other fish, wildlife and plants within these large areas. Animals of any size can be an umbrella species. Large carnivores, like grizzly bears, are umbrella species for the forests where they roam, and little insects, like the bay checkerspot butterfly, serve the same role for rare native grasslands where they occur.
Though their numbers are diminishing, sage-grouse still live on about 100 million acres in the West. Individual groups of grouse are known to migrate up to 100 miles every year as they move between seasonal habitats. These expansive areas include sagebrush habitat, but also lakes, rivers, streams, springs and wetlands, hot springs, aspen groves, alkali flats, salt flats, sand dunes and rocky bluffs.
Managed properly, this diverse mosaic of habitats supports hundreds of species of fish and wildlife, including the powerful northern harrier, the tiny pygmy rabbit, the fleet-footed pronghorn and the gorgeous Lahontan cutthroat trout. The sagebrush ecosystem is a migratory corridor for birds and important winter habitat for mule deer and elk. At least 15 species of raptors use sagebrush grasslands, and a full complement of carnivores inhabit the landscape, from weasels to mountain lions.
“In time there were two as perfectly adjusted to their habitat as the sage. One was a mammal, the fleet and graceful pronghorn antelope. The other was a bird, the sage grouse – the ‘cock of the plains’ of Lewis and Clark.” – Rachel Carson (1962) Silent Spring. (©Tatiana Gettleman/Flickr)
In spring, the Sagebrush Sea radiates with wildflowers, including lupine, buckwheat, balsamroot, and Indian paintbrush. (©Jeff Moser/BikeCarson.com/Flickr)
The pygmy rabbit is the smallest rabbit in the world. Adults measure 8-11 inches and weigh a half-pound to a pound. The pygmy rabbit is also one of only two rabbits that digs its own burrow. It is typically found foraging under stands of big sagebrush species on deep soils, an increasingly rare habitat type in the Sagebrush Sea. (©Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife)
Coyotes, affectionately known as “song dogs,” play a critical role in regulating smaller carnivores in the Sagebrush Sea. (©Manfred Werner/Wikimedia)
Lahontan cutthroat trout evolved to survive in relatively warm water in the Great Basin. Believed to be the largest native trout in North America, fisherman once commercially harvested hundreds of tons of Lahontan trout to feed miners and loggers in Nevada. The fish is currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. (©U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)
The sage sparrow is a sensitive species in the Sagebrush Sea. Like sage-grouse, mule deer and other sagebrush wildlife, sage sparrow populations decline in the face of oil and gas drilling. (©Dominic Sherony/Flickr)
At least fifteen species of raptors use sagebrush habitats, including the rough-legged hawk. (©Tatiana Gettleman/Flickr)
Pronghorn, an icon of the Sagebrush Sea and the fastest land mammal in North America, evolved to outrun ancient predators that went extinct 10,000 years ago. (Tatiana Gettelman/Flickr)
The Washington ground squirrel has been reduced to limited areas in north central Oregon and the Columbia Plateau in Washington. They are currently a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act. (©Jodie Delavan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
This photograph of an American badger was taken on federal public lands in the Kinney Rim citizens’ proposed wilderness area in southwestern Wyoming. The presence of a top carnivore in the area is testament to the wildness of this habitat—and the need to protect it. (©Erik Molvar, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance)
Unfortunately, as sage-grouse have declined in the West, so have a multitude of other species. More than 350 plant, fish and wildlife species in the Sagebrush Sea are of conservation concern. Of these, approximately 60 species are listed or are candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act.
Making matters worse, threats posed by improper land use, weed incursion, wildfire and climate change are increasing on the landscape. Continued habitat loss and degradation is threatening a suite of sagebrush birds, including the sage sparrow, Brewer’s sparrow and sage thrasher. Excessive pumping and water diversions are drying up streams and springs, imperiling native fish. Livestock grazing and fire have severely reduced habitat for the pygmy rabbit, and oil and gas drilling has eliminated winter range for mule deer.
Sage-grouse to the rescue!
Federal and state agencies are currently engaged in an unprecedented planning process to conserve sage-grouse across the West. The new plans will affect more than 60 million acres of public lands. If these agencies adhere to the science and abide by their own planning directives, the conservation measures they develop and implement for sage-grouse will have enormous benefits for other species. New land use restrictions, wildlife reserves and restoration programs would ensure that sage-grouse, and a multitude of other fish and wildlife species, survive and flourish on the landscape. Defenders of Wildlife is heavily involved in the planning process and invite you to join us in this important endeavor!
Umbrella species serve as ambassadors for the ecosystems where they live and, while many ecosystems have an umbrella species, few are as charismatic as sage-grouse. The Sagebrush Sea and all of the fish and wildlife that live there are fortunate to be represented by this charming bird.