BLM employees journey into the Idaho desert to survey sage-grouse

Story and photos by Bruce Hallman, Public Affairs Officer, BLM Idaho Falls District

The journey began early in the morning while it was still dark. Every April, folks throughout the West make similar treks out into sagebrush country to count sage-grouse. This day I joined Justin Frye, wildlife biologist with BLM’s Upper Snake Field Office of the Idaho Falls District. Justin joined this field office in 2013, making this his eighth consecutive year of monitoring about 10 sage-grouse breeding sites (called leks). This is part of the State of Idaho’s whole conservation plan and continues an effort on the Big Desert in eastern Idaho that started in 1986.

Sunrise out on the desert with old volcanic buttes - nice reward for an early start!
Sunrise out on the desert with old volcanic buttes - nice reward for an early start!

Greater sage-grouse are an important part of the web of life in the West. When we protect habitat for sage-grouse, we protect habitat for hundreds of other animals including elk, deer, and antelope, creating a cascade effect for conservation. Because of this overarching benefit, the BLM works with many partners on habitat conservation and restoration, and in this case, primarily with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. 

As a wildlife and conservation enthusiast and worker, I have been desiring to see the mating display of the greater sage-grouse for many years. Finally, it all came together recently as I was able to join Justin on one of his designated routes. Lek surveys are an important tool to help determine population trends and habitat use within a given area. They also provide an opportunity for a landowner or property manager to become more familiar with the habits of sage-grouse and help foster a connection between people and these unique birds. 

Official lek counts begin before sunrise.
Official lek counts begin before sunrise.

Since protocols have been established for uniformity of bird observations, Justin and I left the BLM office while it was still dark. Our route in the desert was over an hour away, and we needed to time it so we got to the first site one half hour before sunrise, as the procedure states. Bird count and morning time for each known lek are recorded, and since all leks in a given area should be counted on the same morning, we kept on trucking. Counts are only valid up to 1½ hours after sunrise. Official observations can start on March 25 and run through the end of April. Justin needs to visit each lek at least four times each spring (separated by 7 to 10 days), so this journey was one of many for him. 

Sage-grouse in action - males displaying and females gathered around pretending not to notice.
Sage-grouse in action - males displaying and females gathered around pretending not to notice.

The morning we went out was clear, a bit chilly and minimally windy – perfect conditions for a valid survey. Since the birds are sensitive to human disturbance, Justin knows to turn off the vehicle, step outside, and listen for displaying birds. Our first lek was the most productive, and the darkest, so good photos were not easy to obtain. We only ended up seeing displaying males in one other lek, so my desire to document was not completely satisfied. In all, we saw just short of 40 birds, which was still awesome. 

Large chubby grouse with a small head and long tail that is fanned into a starburst when displaying.
Large chubby grouse with a small head and long tail that is fanned into a starburst when displaying.
Popping their inflatable neck pouches looks physically demanding. They are typically winding down about an hour after sunrise.
Popping their inflatable neck pouches looks physically demanding. They are typically winding down about an hour after sunrise.
The males strut and fan their spiky tails. So interesting! They inflate and deflate their twin bright yellow throat sacs to make an odd liquid popping sound.
The males strut and fan their spiky tails. So interesting! They inflate and deflate their twin bright yellow throat sacs to make an odd liquid popping sound.

I later learned that subsequent route turned up 117 males on the same leks – the highest number Justin’s seen since 2017! Good news for our landscape conservation efforts. I already have next year’s trip in mind, but I’m pretty thankful for the natural wonders I got to witness this spring, to be sure!