Sage-grouse in Springtime: Lands for a thousand dances

by Heather Feeney, Public Affairs Specialist  

From early March through mid-May, the short-grass steppe, windswept ridges and exposed knolls of sagebrush country come alive with color, motion and sound after the slow white of winter.

Greater sage-grouse are lekking

Male sage-grouse display to gain nearby females' attention on a lek
USFWS/Tom Koerner

Males fan their tails, strut, and announce their presence by popping air in and out of the yellow gular sacs on their chests – all to attract breeding partners.

A male Greater sage-grouse displays to attract female attention
Focusing intensely on their display is costly for lekking males. Out in the open, calling for females’ attention takes a lot of energy and also makes them vulnerable to predators. Males live an average of three years and usually do not successfully mate in their first spring. Females typically live seven years, nesting in as many as six of those. BLM/Bob Wick 

The less showy females have selected these areas because of their proximity to more thickly vegetated lands that can shelter nests. Hens may visit multiple leks per season, while males stay at a single location. Sage-grouse exhibit strong fidelity to particular leks, returning year after year to a place where they’ve successfully bred in past seasons. 

An overhead view of a sage-grouse lek in northwest Colorado
An overhead view of a lek in northwestern Colorado, taken by a USGS unmanned aircraft system. Upper left, female (pink circle) and male birds (blue circles) are seen in the short grass; the denser vegetation to the right may contain nests. U.S. Geological Survey National UAS Project
A wildlife biologist surveys Greater sage-grouse on a lek in Wyoming
Leks are important indicators of health in sage-grouse populations, and wildlife managers count the number of birds that appear at these spots each season to help chart trends. Observers keep their distance to avoid disruption. USFWS/Jen Strickland

The BLM uses buffers around leks that lie on public lands to avoid or minimize fragmentation and disruption of these crucial habitats. Buffers are sized according to scientific research and vary according to local conditions and population characteristics.

The buffers adopted in the BLM’s 2015 sage-grouse plans were based on studies compiled in a U.S. Geological Survey report. More recent research may result in adjustments to buffer sizes and locations as the BLM considers updating the 2015 plans.  

LEARN MORE: Next steps for sage-grouse | More than the numbers | According to plan 

VIDEO Cornell Lab of Ornithology: The Busy Lek :: It’s My Turf :: The Male Display :: Female Connoisseurs :: Elite Males 

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