Phot of a male and female Greater Sage-grouse in Nevada.
Greater Sage-grouse in Nevada.  (Kim Toulouse/Nevada Department of Wildlife)

Sage-Grouse:  A Tale of Two Birds

By Mark Hilliard and San Stiver

Sage-grouse, the iconic game birds of the wide-open rangelands of western North America, may once have ranged across nearly 464,000 square miles, from the Dakotas to California and from Canada to New Mexico, an area nearly as large as Alaska.  From the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, sage-grouse demonstrated significant rangewide declines.  The current range for the greater sage-grouse is about 258,000 square miles, half of which is BLM land.  The Gunnison sage-grouse, a distinctly separate species, occurs only in southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado.  Its range has declined from a historic 17,950 square miles to about 1,850 square miles. 

In 1995, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) Sage-Grouse Technical Committee analyzed population data across 11 western states and two Canadian provinces.  The committee determined that reported declines were real and that they could result in petitions being filed for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) (and beginning in 1999, several were).  The committee also provided a plan for population recovery, which implicitly engaged stakeholders across the sagebrush biome through locally developed conservation plans and actions.  This concept became a guiding principle in what is one of the most widespread North American wildlife conservation efforts to date. 

A male and two female Greater Sage-grouse in a field in Nevada.
A male Greater Sage-grouse near two females in Nevada.  (Kim Toulouse/Nevada Department of Wildlife)
Led by WAFWA, in concert with the BLM, U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), individuals and organizations potentially affected by ESA listing suddenly became, willing or not, conservation “partners.”  While civility generally prevailed, the verbal jousting and sparring at some planning meetings got downright acrimonious, with long-time adversaries arguing vehemently over land management practices and policies involving livestock grazing, oil and gas development, wind energy, recreation, and more.

In 2000, WAFWA, the BLM, USFS, and USFWS created a national-level team to produce a planning framework that ultimately became the “Greater Sage-grouse Comprehensive Conservation Strategy” (strategy).  The strategy was completed in 2006 and is still the roadmap to sage-grouse recovery.  It contains all state and local conservation plans and recommendations developed through the “Greater Sage-Grouse Range-wide Issues Forum,” which was convened by the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution and included representatives from livestock and other agriculture, energy, and mineral industries; nongovernmental organizations; Native American tribes; academia; and government, including Canadian provinces. 

The entire monumental effort to develop the strategy involved thousands of individuals, from top management to the field level; local working groups alone had more than 5,000 participants.  Facilitators, often enduring long, contentious meetings, played a key role in building the trust that was so necessary for success.  The expertise and counsel of the technical committee and framework team were also critical to the strategy.

In March 2010, the USFWS determined that ESA protection for greater sage-grouse was “warranted but precluded,” citing two major contributing factors:  1) habitat loss and fragmentation, and 2) “the absence of adequate regulatory mechanisms . . . now and in the foreseeable future.”  Regulatory mechanisms include agency policies and land management plans.  The USFWS will issue a new determination by September 30, 2015.  In September 2010, a “warranted but precluded” determination for the Gunnison sage-grouse was also issued.

The sagebrush biome is the most endangered arid ecosystem in North America.  The human footprint is pervasive, habitat restoration is challenging, and the effectiveness of conservation efforts will likely take decades to determine.  In the “Conservation Assessment of Greater Sage-grouse and Sagebrush Habitats” (2004), the authors state that they are “not optimistic about the future of sage-grouse because of long-term population declines coupled with continued loss and degradation of habitat and other factors (including West Nile Virus).”  However, since then, unprecedented resources, science, and conservation efforts have been applied to stem the decline of sage-grouse.

In recent years, using varied approaches and programs, state and federal agencies have invested more than $100 million to address habitat loss and fragmentation.  The Natural Resources Conservation Service is working with private landowners to protect and restore habitat.  The BLM and USFS are addressing “the absence of adequate regulatory mechanisms” by, for example, mapping important areas to identify risks and revising land management plans to strengthen sage-grouse conservation measures.  As a result, there is now more optimism that the goal of stabilizing sage-grouse populations and maintaining sufficient numbers and distribution for their long-term well-being can be met, irrespective of the ESA listing outcome.

In the bigger picture, managing ecosystems to ensure that all living components—fish, wildlife and plants—maintain robust populations is really what we should be doing anyway, whether under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act or other federal and state laws.  And perhaps just as important as the sage-grouse conservation efforts is demonstrating that by working together we can better recognize emerging conservation concerns and develop viable solutions, not because of potential ESA listings or other legal threats, but because it's a core tenet of responsible stewardship.

Editor’s note: Since this article was written, the BLM has made major strides in activities to protect sage-grouse habitat, working with federal, state and local entities within the species' range states.  An unprecedented range-wide planning effort is currently underway.  To get the latest on BLM’s sage-grouse conservation efforts, go to

Mark retired from BLM after 32 years as a biologist, having previously worked 7 years with Utah Wildlife Resources.  He served as vice-chair of the Sage-Grouse Conservation Planning Framework Team and on the WAFWA Sage-Grouse Technical Committee.  He is currently an independent consultant.

San retired after 30 years as a biologist with the Nevada Division of Wildlife and served as chair of the Sage-Grouse Conservation Planning Framework Team and on the WAFWA Sage-Grouse Technical Committee.  He is currently the WAFWA sage-grouse coordinator.