Sagebrush and Grasses and Forbs: All the Better for Nesting

by Heather Feeney, Public Affairs Specialist  

In sagebrush country, the early morning busyness of breeding in March and April subsides into weeks of quieter activity in May and early June. The focus shifts from males to females, and the location moves from open leks to adjacent areas with taller, thicker vegetation.

Greater sage-grouse are nesting. 

A Greater sage-grouse hen in covering vegetation
Lack of color in her plumage helps the female sage-grouse blend in with the surroundings. A radio-collar helps track her life-history and space requirements. USFWS-Pacific Region Flickr

Hens take cover in the sagebrush and taller native grasses that surround or abut leks, to be out of sight -- and "out of scent" -- to predators. Most nests are established within 4 miles of leks, and as with those breeding grounds, sage-grouse show fidelity to nesting places: hens may return to an area where they successfully pulled off a nest the previous year and -- sometimes within feet -- nest there again. 

In general, the taller the cover, the greater the chances for a successful hatch. 

An overhead view of a sage-grouse lek in northwest Colorado
At right, seen from the air, nesting habitat awaits its turn as the focus of sage-grouse activity. Females (in the pink circle, upper left) will seek cover before laying the season’s eggs. U.S. Geological Survey National UAS Project

While the birds and their kinetic displays on open flats are the signatures of lekking, plants take center-stage during nesting. 

Sagebrush and native grasses in muted shades of green are a protective canopy for the birds and for lower-growing, flowering plants called forbs, which expand the landscape's color palette and more importantly, provide food for nesting hens. 

Scarlet globemallow blooms in sage-steppe, southwest Wyoming
Scarlet globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea) in sage-steppe habitat, southwest Wyoming. USFWS/Tom Koerner

More than 100 forb species are important for sage-grouse across their range in the Great Basin and Rockies, and are among the more than 350 species that sagebrush ecosystems support. Sage-grouse will eat the leaves and flowers of forbs like vetches and mallows. The leaves and stems of others such as the arrowleaf balsamroot are too coarse or prickly, but the insects and spiders these plants harbor are palatable and nutritious. 

The American vetch and the arrowleaf balsamroot
Vicia americana (American vetch) and Balsamorhiza sagittata (Arrowleaf balsamroot) BLM/Nancy Patterson


The BLM closely monitors vegetation in areas designated for management as sage-grouse habitat, to gauge whether habitat conditions are meeting or making progress toward meeting objectives established in BLM plans for sage-grouse conservation

Two rangeland specialists measure vegetation height and density in sage-steppe
The height and coverage of vegetation measured along a transect are combined with other monitoring data to determine trends and changes in habitat conditions, ultimately to evaluate the effectiveness of conservation measures and habitat restoration. BLM-AIM program

Hens will incubate a nest for about 28 days. Clutches number between 6 and 9, with 8 eggs typical. 

In SEASON: Lands for a thousand dances  
LEARN MORE: Next steps for sage-grouse | More than the numbers | According to plan 

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