BLM Identifies Key Sage-Grouse Habitat 
Using Radio, Satellites, Aircraft and…Feathers

An important part of any effort to conserve sage-grouse is knowing where crucial habitat is located. Today, States are creating sage-grouse “core habitat” maps using the most current remote sensing, telemetry and observational data available in order to identify those areas deemed most important for the conservation of sage-grouse. The BLM is an active partner in these efforts.

“Core habitat areas,” not only describe breeding areas (as shown on the Breeding Bird Density Map); they also delineate habitat necessary to sustain the species year round. This involves knowing where sage-grouse spend time during different times of the year and tracking the paths they take to get to and from those places. To this end, the BLM and the States are using a suite of high-tech tools to locate and track sage-grouse use of the public lands.

Birds, Radio Collars, and Telemetry Studies

With telemetry studies, researchers capture sage-grouse and attach a collar with a battery-operated radio transmitter. The transmitter emits a signal that can be used to track the birds’ movements.

In California, the BLM is using radio-telemetry to help define the seasonal ranges for all sage-grouse populations occurring on BLM-managed lands in the state. Most sage-grouse are found in the eastern part of the state and are related to those found in western Nevada and southern Oregon. The BLM continues annual lek surveys and population monitoring in key sage-grouse areas of California such as in the Bodie Hills of the eastern Sierra region or the Buffalo-Skedaddle region of Lassen County.

In Nevada, as in other states, telemetry study results arecontributing to the development of the state’s habitat priority map and helping the BLM prioritize areas for habitat improvement based on where the sage-grouse nest, rear their young and migrate. More than 25 sage-grouse were recently captured and fitted with radio collars to help the BLM Ely District identify and prioritize land treatment areas in Lincoln County. A follow-up telemetry study will monitor how sage-grouse use treated areas in the Cave, Lake, Hamlin, and South Spring Valleys. Follow-up lek surveys will determine if the treatments were successful. Telemetry data from radio-collared hens also has informed the best management practice being adopted by BLM-Nevada of a 3-mile buffer around leks.

In Utah, lands administered by the BLM’s Cedar City, Field Office provide a stronghold for sage-grouse, but until recently, there was little data on habitat use. Today, the BLM is obtaining this information through a special telemetry project to capture, radio-collar, and track sage-grouse in portions of the Hamlin Valley watershed. The data will be used to map sage-grouse use of seasonal habitat and movement patterns in southwestern Utah and eastern Nevada. This is helping managers coordinate habitat restoration projects that target important sage-grouse brooding and wintering areas. The State of Utah is combining this information with other studies to update seasonal habitat layers state-wide. Partners include Southern Utah University, Utah State University Extension Service, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, local landowners, and local and national sportsmen groups such as Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

In Idaho, a 10 year telemetry study associated with the China Mountain wind project proposal area is just one example of sage-grouse habitat use and wind energy studies occurring in a number of BLM states. Also in Idaho, a graduate student from Utah State University is conducting a telemetry study in southeast Idaho on the Bear Lake Plateau, where little is known about seasonal habitat use.

The BLM is conducting two management studies of sage-grouse to detect migration and habitat use in Montana. The first, in southwest Montana, involves radio tracking 25 sage-grouse biweekly to find how and when these birds migrate to Idaho for wintering, and where potential conflicts may occur with the development of a proposed transmission line. The second study, in southeastern Montana, involves radio collaring up to 100 birds and monitoring habitat use in proposed protection areas and identified high importance areas. Most of the radio tracking will be conducted with aerial flights.

These projects have helped the State of Montana delineate prime sage-grouse habitat. The Nature Conservancy is also using the data to determine which habitat is considered suitable, marginal, or unsuitable; how far sage-grouse travel between seasonal habitats; and the differences between male and female movements.

In Wyoming, the BLM is monitoring a control population of sage-grouse to establish baseline data against which to measure populations in areas with heavier use. Click here to read more.

When access on the ground is difficult or remote, sage-grouse can be tracked from the air. In Wyoming, for example, the BLM’s Pinedale Field Office conducts annual helicopter flights over the Pinedale Anticline Project Area as well as several control areas to survey for sage-grouse in January and February. The area supports significant energy development. These flights establish a baseline of winter concentration areas for the birds both within the Project Area and control areas.

Data is collected by flying half mile transects at low levels to detect wintering flocks of sage-grouse. Flight data is combined with telemetry, research data, and ground observations to determine which habitats are frequented by the birds in winter. Over multiple years, an accurate picture of winter concentration areas emerges and the BLM uses this information to delineate and protect important winter habitat in coordination with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Flights are also conducted over the area in March and April to survey for sage-grouse leks.

Flights are used to monitor sage-grouse in other states as well. In Idaho, the BLM and Idaho Fish and Game Department are using low-level flights by fixed-wing aircraft to monitor radio collared grouse in the Challis region, where the majority of public lands are considered key sage-grouse habitat. Although more than 30 leks are known, seasonal sage-grouse movements are not well understood here, and winter habitat is often inaccessible due to snow. Data from these flights are helping the BLM identify and assess nesting and winter habitat as well as reproductive success and brood survivability. Partners include the Idaho Fish and Game Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and Challis Sage-grouse Local Working Group.

Study of Feathers Provides New Information

Studying DNA samples from sage-grouse feathers found at leks helps researchers delineate breeding populations and establish the extent to which various populations are related. These studies will determine where genetic connectivity is the strongest and where barriers might exist because of habitat fragmentation or topography.

This effort started with a state-wide study in Wyoming, where BLM is working with the State of Wyoming, the United States Geological Survey, Colorado State University, and local sage-grouse working groups. The BLM also is funding sage-grouse genetics studies in Montana and the Dakotas in cooperation with the University of Montana, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Forest Service Genetics Lab, World Wildlife Fund, the Audubon Society and other organizations. This study will examine connectivity and potential barriers across the sage-grouse range in the three states. The analysis will be conducted by students at the University of Montana and the data analyzed by the students and forest research staff. Montana and Idaho are collaborating on a more specific genetics study associated with the Mountain States Intertie Transmission project.

Technology Supports Decision Making

Tracking technology, from radios to DNA sampling, is providing a new understanding of where key sage-grouse populations exist and what their habitat needs are. Decision makers are using this information to target conservation strategies for key sage-grouse populations, seasonal habitat areas and important habitat corridors. The BLM works with many other public and private organizations to gather, report and use this important information to help protect sage-grouse across the West.

Students get ready to attach radio collar
Rebecca Smith, right, and an assistant adjust the GPS unit on a sage-grouse as part of a research study to locate migration corridors. Rebecca is a wildlife biology student in the BLM Student Career Experience Program (SCEP) in the Glasgow, Montana, Field Office.
Recently mowed area help benefit sage-grouse habitat.
Adjusting the GPS unit on a sage-grouse in Montana. The two-inch long camouflaged-painted units are attached to the bird’s lower back.
Recently mowed area help benefit sage-grouse habitat.
Sage-grouse are visible in snow and can be counted from the air if difficult to access on the ground.

More Information on Satellite Tracking

Newer GPS collars use satellites instead of radio receivers; they can track animal movements 24/7, and can store information in a collar for up to a year. Click on the links below to read stories about GPS and sage-grouse conservation.