Sage-Grouse Education

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Drawing of sage-grouse habitat
Introduction to Greater Sage-Grouse

The sagebrush steppe is a vast landscape that covers much of the western half of the country. The ecosystem supports a diversity of plants and wildlife, containing more than 400 plant species and providing habitat for more than 250 animal species. Some animals rely on sagebrush to live. These “sagebrush obligate” species include pygmy rabbits, sage thrashers, sage-grouse and sagebrush lizards.

Sage-grouse have a unique mating ritual. Male sage-grouse gather in a lek to competitively display by inflating their air sacs and making a unique popping sound to attract female sage-grouse. Once a female sage-grouse lays her eggs (up to nine eggs in one nest) she begins brooding to keep the eggs warm. Baby sage-grouse first eat insects, before moving on to forbs (small non- woody plants that aren’t grasses) and eventually eating sagebrush.

The sagebrush steppe faces many threats, including invasive plants and habitat fragmentation. One invasive plant, cheatgrass, is dangerous because it causes fires that destroy sagebrush. Habitat fragmentation occurs when land is developed and breaks up the sage-grouse’s historic habitat. As sagebrush (which provides natural hiding places for many animals) becomes scarce, predators such as hawks and coyotes are able to more easily prey on sage-grouse.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is the agency responsible for classifying plants and animals as threatened or endangered species. The Greater Sage-Grouse is a candidate species, currently listed as “Warranted but Precluded,” meaning that it is in danger of extinction, but other higher priority species need to be included on the Endangered Species List first.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages more than 245 million acres of public land – the largest federal land management agency in the nation. The Greater Sage-Grouse’s range covers 11 states and occupies a large percentage of public land. The BLM's mission is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations. The BLM is developing a conservation strategy to help increase sage-grouse populations and avoid Greater Sage-Grouse listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Colorado is home to two species of sage-grouse  – the Greater Sage-Grouse and the Gunnison Sage-Grouse. Until the 1990s, experts thought that they were both part of the same species! Using genetic tests, researchers discovered that they are two separate species. In 2000, the Gunnison Sage-Grouse officially became its own species.

 Birders didn’t know the two species were different until 2000 because they’re very hard to tell apart! While the birds look and behave similarly, live in sagebrush and display in leks, here are a few of their differences:

·         Their populations don’t overlap.
·         Gunnison Sage-Grouse are about 2/3 the size of Greater Sage-Grouse.
·         They make different sounds (check out the links at the bottom of this page).
·         Male Gunnison Sage-grouse have a bigger filoplume (the feathers on top of their heads) that they flip around while displaying on a lek.

While both the Greater and the Gunnison Sage-Grouse are rare, the Gunnison Sage-Grouse population is much smaller with only about 3,500 individuals alive today. Almost all of the remaining Gunnison Sage-Grouse are found in Colorado (a few are found just over the border, in Utah). Greater Sage-Grouse, on the other hand, live in 11 western states and Canada. Colorado only accounts for a small part of their range. Researchers believe there are probably between 200,000 and 500,000 Greater Sage-Grouse living now. Both species are candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

As Coloradoans we can be especially proud of the Gunnison Sage-grouse, because it’s a Coloradoan too!

Drawing of sage-grouse
Male sage-grouse
researcher with sage-grouse.
Male sage-grouse in mating display.
Profile picture of male and female sage-grouse

Sage-Grouse Vocabulary
Air Sac – A structure on the male sage-grouse ‘s chest that inflates during lekking displays.
Brooding – A behavior in which parents warm nestlings or young that cannot maintain their own body temperatures.
Candidate Species – A species that will be or is being considered for listing as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Conservation Strategy – An approach for protecting a particular species, habitat or ecosystem.
Diversity – Variety or a range of different things.
Ecosystem – A biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment.
Endangered Species – A plant or animal that is in imminent danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.
Endangered Species List – A list of plants and animals that are in danger of becoming extinct that is maintained by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) as required by the Endangered Species Act. The act’s primary goal is to prevent the extinction of imperiled plant and animal life and, secondly, to recover and maintain those populations by removing or lessening threats to their survival.
Extinction – When the last individual of a species dies.
Filoplume - Feathers that extend over the male sage-grouse's head and are used in the Gunnison Sage-Grouse's lekking display.
Forb – An herbaceous plant that is not a grass.
Fragmented Habitat – Breaks in a species’ preferred living area. The fragmentation is usually a result of human action, as, for example, the clearing of forest or grassland for agriculture or residential development.
Habitat – Place where an animal normally lives or where individuals of a population live.  
Historic Habitat – Areas where viable populations have not occurred within five years or more.
Invasive Plants – A non-native introduced plant that has a negative effect on habitats.
Lek – An area where male sage-grouse display for the purpose of gaining breeding territories and attracting females. These arenas are usually open areas with short vegetation within sagebrush habitats, usually on broad ridges, benches, or valley floors where visibility and hearing acuity are excellent.
Obligate Totally dependent on another species or a certain habitat for survival.  
Predator – An animal that lives by killing and eating other animals.
Range – The geographic area or spatial distribution in which a species is normally found.
Sagebrush – A shrub that has silver-grey leaves, yellow flowers and grows in arid sections of the western United States and Canada.
Steppe – A Russian word meaning treeless plain or a non-forested region dominated by grasses and low shrubs. 
Warranted but Precluded – A species that merits listing under the Endangered Species Act, but is not listed because other species are present a more urgent priority for listing. A "warranted but precluded" finding is automatically recycled back through the 12-month process indefinitely until a result of either "not warranted" or "warranted" is determined. The agencies monitor the status of any "warranted but precluded" species.

Map of Greater Sage-Grouse and Gunnison Sage-Grouse Range