Spring will soon herald the age-old ritual of courtship, and one of the most striking belongs to the sage-grouse, a large ground-dwelling bird of the Western United States. Each year, the males gather at breeding grounds called leks to perform elaborate mating rituals that include the puffing of chests and clapping of air bladders designed both to intimidate competitors and attract females. It is truly a sight to see, and hear.
These leks, and the thousands of birds attracted to them each year, are the focus of a major conservation project spearheaded by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM): The Sage-Grouse Breeding Bird Density Map displays, for the first time, crucial breeding areas for sage-grouse all across the West.
The BLM funded and coordinated the project and worked with the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the University of Montana and The Nature Conservancy to make it happen.
Although some state fish and wildlife agencies have identified sage-grouse “core areas,” the fundamental question, “where are the sage-grouse?” had never before been answered on a range-wide scale. This is the first cooperative federal-state-private effort that looks at sage-grouse densities in a consistent way across the West using a peer-reviewed scientific methodology.
Already it has become an important tool for the BLM and other agencies, allowing them to work from one common map and to target limited resources to achieve the greatest conservation benefit.
Danielle Flynn, BLM Wildlife Program Lead in Washington, D.C., says the map provides an “extraordinary opportunity to identify priorities for sage-grouse habitat conservation throughout the bird’s entire range in the United States. And not just for the BLM, but for everyone who manages sage-grouse and its habitat.”
The map crosses land ownerships and provides, on a coarse scale, information about where most of the sage-grouse are located. Breeding bird densities can vary widely; one lek might have just three males while another has more than forty. These differences can be taken into account when it comes to spending limited funds on conservation.
Sage-grouse populations are threatened primarily by loss of habitat due to a number of factors, including the increasing occurrence and intensity of wildland fires, the invasion of exotic weeds, and intensive land use activities such as energy development and urban and suburban expansion. West Nile Virus and predation have also caused population declines. Last year, the sage-grouse was determined to be a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.
As a resident game species, sage-grouse are managed by State governments, but the birds’ habitat is in the hands of a diverse mix of State, Federal and private entities. The Breeding Bird Density Map shows all ownerships, and is a result of unprecedented cooperation between State and Federal agencies on sage-grouse data sharing.
“The States assisted with data on lek counts and location; this allowed us to map the abundance of sage-grouse at breeding areas across the West,” Flynn said. “A lot of credit goes to the State wildlife agencies for their willingness to do this.”
The BLM is using the map to help develop or refine national policies for sage-grouse conservation. “We are taking a strategic approach to identify and conserve priority focus areas rather than a scattered approach that might put scarce resources toward small isolated populations. The idea is to conserve large landscapes of intact habitat where sage-grouse densities are high.”
The map serves as a starting point for regional conservation efforts beyond BLM. For example, it is helping the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service take a more targeted approach to funding sage-grouse habitat conservation projects on private lands through a new Sage-Grouse Initiative.
“It is important to emphasize that the Breeding Bird Density Map is not a substitute for state specific delineation of core habitat areas,” cautions Frank Quamen, who manages the project from the BLM’s National Operations Center in Denver. “The map is a backdrop to the States’ efforts – a big-picture look at where the birds are West-wide.” Some States, such as Wyoming, have already delineated core habitat areas while others are using the Breeding Bird Density Map as a starting point for this task. Core areas not only include breeding grounds, but other seasonal habitat as well, along with the corridors that link them together.
The ultimate goal is to consider information on habitat required for all stages of the bird’s life. For example, while sage-grouse need open areas for breeding, they need protected areas for brood rearing, where grasses and forbs provide cover and food. In winter, when grasses and forbs die down, the grouse must move into sagebrush-dominated areas. Habitat conservation objectives must take into account these varying habitat needs, including corridors between habitat types. That is why it is essential that landowners work together.
Sage-grouse currently occupy about 56 percent of their historic range, and exist today in 11 Western states. The BLM manages more than half of remaining sage-grouse habitat in the West. Most of the breeding areas (60+ percent) are on federal lands with a third on private land.