About the Greater Sage-Grouse
Greater Sage-Grouse stand up to two feet tall and weigh between two and seven pounds. Females (hens) are smaller and mottled brown, black and white. Males are more colorful and have spiked tails and large white ruffs around their necks. The male’s most distinctive feature may be bright yellow air sacs on the chest, which they inflate during courtship displays. The hens’ less-showy coloring helps hide them from predators, especially when they have young to protect.
Chicks are precocial – their eyes are open when they hatch, and they can leave the nest within two days. Hatchlings are covered in soft down feathers that also help camouflage them from predators.
As their name suggests, Greater Sage-Grouse need sagebrush habitat to survive. They currently inhabit sage-steppe ecosystems in Montana, southern Idaho, northeastern California, eastern Oregon, northwestern Colorado, and broader sections of Wyoming, Utah and Nevada.
Greater Sage-Grouse use sage-steppe habitat year-round, but it is critical for their survival in winter and spring. In cold months the birds shelter under mature sagebrush. In spring, males and females congregate on leks – large, open flats surrounded by sagebrush – to breed. Males strut with tail feathers fanned, swishing their wings, and inflating the air sacs on their chests with rhythmic huffing that can be heard from a mile away. Individual birds often use the same lek year after year.
After mating, hens fly 4-15 miles from the lek to nest and rear their broods. Research shows that hens nest within the same two or three square yards (meters) every year. They gradually move to moist areas such as stream banks and wet meadows during the brood-rearing phase to feed on the forbs and insects needed to ensure chick survival. When Greater Sage-Grouse return to find a familiar lek, nesting or brood-rearing area disturbed, they show little ability to adapt to the changes or to find substitute habitat.
As the American West has become more and more urbanized over the last 100 years, Greater Sage-Grouse populations have declined due to loss, degradation or fragmentation of habitat. Today, there are about 40 percent fewer sage-grouse than in the 1970s occupying only 56 percent their historic habitat.
No single factor is the cause of declining Greater Sage-Grouse populations. But the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Assessment identifies a number of factors that, since the beginning of settlement in the West, have adversely affected the number of birds and the amount, distribution and quality of sagebrush habitats:
• habitat loss and degradation
• sagebrush destruction
• habitat fragmentation
• woodland encroachment
• altered fire regimes
• weed infestation
• rehabilitation challenges
• pesticide applications
• built structures (water developments, fences, power lines, wind turbines, etc.)
Planning for Conservation Success
In March 2010, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) found that listing the Greater Sage-Grouse for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was “warranted but precluded.” FWS said that it had other, higher priority species it needed to address first. Because of a court-ordered settlement, the FWS has until 2015 to make a final determination on listing the Greater Sage-Grouse under the ESA.
In its March 2010 findings, the FWS specifically recommended that the BLM and the United States Forest Service (USFS) improve regulatory and management measures in their land-use plans to protect
Greater Sage-Grouse habitat. The BLM and the USFS are working together to revise or amend plans in 68 BLM planning units and 20 National Forests and Grasslands and to build in consistent conservation measures and on-the-ground actions that will conserve – or better still, improve – remaining Greater Sage-Grouse habitat on public lands.
As the BLM and the USFS work on revising their land use plans, they are working in close coordination with state governments, which manage all resident wildlife, including Greater Sage-Grouse, through their respective wildlife management divisions or departments. They are also working with a broad range of other constituents, including other federal agencies, local governments and Native American Tribes.
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service started a special Greater Sage Grouse Initiative in 2010 to implement conservation practices on private lands to help achieve the species’ conservation through sustainable agriculture.
Much is at stake in the sagebrush habitat across the West: energy and agricultural development, recreation, livestock grazing and fire management, to cite only a few examples. Proactively implementing the right policies and conservation measures now will reduce regulatory burdens on stakeholders. Ideally, sufficient threats can be removed to eliminate the need to the list the species under ESA. Now is the best time to restore and conserve habitat to avoid future actions that could limit everyone’s ability to manage sagebrush habitat.
To help us keep on track internally, we divided our planning effort into two broad regions: Rocky Mountain and Great Basin.
In the Rocky Mountain portion of the Greater Sage-Grouse’s range, we are focusing on the continued loss, fragmentation and degradation of habitat particularly as it pertains to energy development.
In the Great Basin portion of the Greater Sage-Grouse’s range, the major threats to habitat include wildfire and invasive plant species.
Both the BLM and the USFS have issued Interim Management Guidance to help us determine whether to authorize or continue certain activities in Greater Sage-Grouse habitat while we update our land use plans. This guidance is designed to ensure that we maintain or improve Greater Sage-Grouse populations and habitats over the short term while we address long-term conservation through amendments to our land management plans. You can read the BLM Guidance here.
The BLM also set up a National Technical Team to identify science-based conservation measures and provide us with measureable conservation objectives to guide this revision of our long-term land use plans. This team was made up of representatives from the BLM, the FWS, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and State Fish and Wildlife agencies. That team has issued its report and it is available here. The FWS recently released its draft of a complementary report from its Conservation Objectives Team.
In January of 2012, we held nearly 40 scoping meetings throughout 10 western states with Greater Sage-Grouse populations to gather public input for use in our joint planning process. The public submitted more than 30,000 comments during the process. The two agencies have consolidated these comments into a scoping report, available here.
Starting in 2013, we will begin releasing Draft Environmental Impact Statements for public review and comment. All of these efforts will culminate with revised or amended RMPs and publication of several Final Environmental Impact Statements in 2014. Working with our partners each step of the way, we aim to maintain and restore high-quality habitat and flourishing populations of Greater Sage-Grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species.
For more information, consult our Frequently Asked Questions page.