As promised, WC spent some time birding this weekend. One of his target species was the Greater Sage-Grouse, one of North America’s most endangered bird species. In some relatively undisturbed sage brush habitat, in the hills north of the Snake River plain, WC lucked in to some birds, through the help of a very good guide.
Clouds and fog of varying density blew through the entire day; some shots show just how thick the stuff was at times. But it didn’t detract from the experience.
The Great Sage-Grouse is in trouble. Distribution and population densities have been greatly reduced because of loss of habitat to cultivation, burning, and overgrazing. It’s a species that counts on fairly high densities for its spectacular courtship behavior. Courtship, “lekking,” is still a month or so away. But in the better habitat, and WC’s guide took us to some excellent habitat, pretty amazing numbers of birds can still be seen.
Despite their endangered or near-endangered status, Idaho still permits some hunting. Because in Idaho, hunting trumps everything else. So the birds were unusually flighty. Most Sage-Grouse you are lucky enough to see are flying away.
Sage-Grouse are perfectly adapted to their sage brush habitat. Their coloration, and especially the hens’, blends into the terrain superbly, hiding them from hunting Golden Eagles.
This is the largest North American Grouse species. It is the center of Native American mythos, and an important part of the sage brush ecosystem. But we are losing the species. Greater Sage-Grouse populations have declined from an estimated 16 million 100 years ago to between 200,000 and 500,000 today.
There are lots of reasons for the population crash, but habitat loss is by far the biggest cause: (1) Millions of acres of native sagebrush-dominated shrub-steppe have been cultivated, primarily for production of wheat, potatoes, and other crops. (2) Millions more acres of remaining shrub-steppe have been treated to remove sagebrush. (3) The quality of remaining shrub-steppe habitat has declined because of urbanization and intense grazing pressure by livestock. (4) Fire frequency has been reduced in some areas and increased in others, particularly areas prone to human-caused fires and/or invasion by exotic plants such as cheat grass, formally downy brome (Bromus tectorum). The cumulative effect has been the loss of immense areas of historic Sage Grouse habitat. Other areas have been altered and degraded. And, importantly for a species the relies on lekking, the remaining habitat has been fragmented.
The species was almost certainly eligible for for full protection under the Endangered Species Act. But instead, the Secretary of the Interior announced a joint effort to protect the habitat, a weird political compromise that satisfied no one. In fact, Idaho’s Governor Butch “There Otter Be a Law” is already suing the United States over the plan. And environmental NGOs are suing the U.S. for the failure to classify the Sage Grouse as endangered.
In the meantime, each year fires, mining, oil drilling and overgrazing cost the Greater Sage-Gouse a little more habitat loss. As the polar bear is the symbol of the Arctic, the Sage Grouse is the emblem of the Sage Brush Sea. We’re losing both.
Special thanks to Aaron Utz and Remy for putting us on so many birds, more than 140 altogether. WC hopes it’s easier to clean your truck than it was to get all that mud off his boots.