Endangered Greater Sage Grouse

Greater Sage Grouse - Centrocercus urophasianusThe Greater Sage Grouse can be found surviving in open sage country, from the Great Basin and into the Rocky Mountain states. During breeding season, sage cocks, as the male birds are sometimes called, gather in grassy areas to posture and pose, hoping to attract mates. The sage cock is much smaller than a turkey, yet larger than others of its clan in North America.

I met this bird at Lake Crowley south of Mammoth California, east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Upper Owen’s Valley is high, over 7000 feet of elevation, and in the breeding season (late winter/early spring) when it easiest to find them, the males are strutting their stuff at what are called leks. A lek is a clearing in the grass or sage scrub where the cocks will stand for hours displaying their fine feathery selves, puffing up the yellow-greenish air sacks on their chests and delivering their soft booming sounds. Be prepared for the bitter cold of winter if you dare try to witness one of these spectacles.

A war is brewing over the fate the Greater Sage Grouse. Studies show a 56% decrease in numbers between 2007 and 2013. The estimated population of the species across 11 western states is 400,000 birds. A hundred years ago homesteaders described their being so many, they would ‘blacken the skies’. As with most threats to species decline, human greed leading to habitat loss is the apparent reason for this rapid decline. Much of the habitat required for this bird is on ranch lands. I’m sure that among those who call themselves ranchers, opinions vary on the solution to the decline of this bird. I believe most of the ranchers who live on and love the land consider themselves good stewards of the landscape. Corporate ranchers, with their shareholders and boards of directors are less likely to consider the consequences of their profit motivated decisions. Likewise, the oil and gas companies with their drilling and bulldozing will resist self regulation. Their efforts to generate revenue without consideration for the impact on the ecosystem, will override the focus on the big picture and fail to treat this problem with the gravity it deserves.

The champions of the cause to preserve this bird for posterity are trying to get the Greater Sage Grouse listed as an endangered species. Statistics support the belief that without protection, the destiny of this bird will be extinction. Once a population drops below a minimum threshold, the gene pool becomes nonviable. The proponents of profit are screaming bloody murder that such steps to defend the bird will diminish their ability to generate revenue. I would argue that like the past efforts to save the Spotted Owl, the old growth trees would have disappeared under the grind of ax and saw, leaving timber-based enterprises out of business anyway. If left to their own devices, corporate ranchers would overgraze themselves into their own extinction. Gas and oil chasers would exhaust those finite resources, leaving behind a wasteland, while they would move along to the next profit opportunity.

Current efforts on behalf of this bird include research funding to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. A case could be made that we will study this bird to death and never intervene with timely, effective measures. Some believe that steps taken to date could be characterized as “planning to plan”. The Greater Sage Grouse is considered a watershed species. Meaning there are many other species whose fate is linked to this bird. In a century we’ve seen the decline of population for this bird from hundreds of millions to hundreds of thousands. Further, if we’ve lost 56% during a recent seven year period, how much longer can we wait before it’s too late?

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