Grouse guide: What you need to know about the greater sage grouse debate

News Type: Regional Source: Great Falls Tribune
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For a bird that prefers to stay hidden in the sagebrush of the prairie, the greater sage grouse has spent a lot of time in the spotlight.

The ground-dwelling bird can thank the on-going debate about land management for its rise to fame.

The public comment period for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s Secretarial Order 3353, an order drafted to look at revisions to land management amendments for the greater sage grouse has been extended by the Bureau of Land Management to Dec. 1, 2017 —giving constituents four more days to provide feedback.

“The fact remains, sage grouse numbers have increased in the west by nearly two-thirds since 2013,” Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said in a statement. “Montana needs to continue take the lead on sage grouse conservation, and I hope BLM can revise their plans to allow Montana to do so. Because a sage grouse can’t tell the difference between federal, state and private lands, Montana should take the lead, not a bunch of out of Washington, D.C bureaucrats.”

However, groups coming out against Zinke’s proposed amendments say the amendments brings greater sage grouse protections back to square one and undermines the work already put in by stakeholders.

When Gov. Steve Bullock, D-Mont., assumed office in 2013, one of his first acts was to establish a 12-person Sage Grouse Advisory Council to study and develop strategies to protect the birds. In 2015, the Legislature established the Greater Sage Grouse Stewardship Act, which included a $10 million Stewardship Fund for grants.

“The Department of Interior’s approach to Sage-Grouse continues to fuel uncertainty,” Bullock said in a statement. “I’m worried they are heading down a path that not only undermines years of bipartisan collaboration between private landowners, conservation groups, industry and state and federal partners, but also invites new risks of an endangered species act listing. I join other governors in requesting that Secretary Zinke meet with us to meaningfully consult and chart a more thoughtful path forward.”

The original greater sage grouse conservation plan was signed during the Obama administration. The plan was years in the making and included negotiation and compromise from conservationists, industry and agriculture stakeholders and the state and federal government. The plan ultimately saved the greater sage grouse from listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Recent counts indicate there are fewer than 500,000 sage grouse remaining. Montana is home to somewhere between 60,000 and 90,000. Exact numbers are difficult to ascertain given sage grouse’s affinity for hiding.

“One of the other things the Trump Administration and Secretary Zinke is advocating is that we not deal in sage grouse habitat, but we deal in sage grouse populations,” Janet Ellis, member of Bullock’s 12-person Sage Grouse Advisory Council, said. “As you know, like with grizzly bears, you want to count them. You know where they are and that’s what we think about. But for these guys, it’s really hard to count them…Between 2004 and 2013,  the average displaying males per lek in Montana ranged from seven birds to 19.”

Calculating greater sage grouse numbers through a 10-year average is much more meaningful, Ellis continued.

The greater sage grouse is found in 11 western states. Though the largest population is found in Wyoming, the second largest is in Montana.

Since the early 1900s, there has been an 80 to 90 percent decline in sage grouse populations, with a 35 percent decline since 1985.

Sage grouse are sage obligate, meaning they must have sage in their diets as adults. That’s why they’ve made their home primarily along the sage-filled plains of Montana, Wyoming, Nevada and Idaho.

“It’s not quite as sexy as the Rocky Mountain Front, but it’s everything to them,” Ellis said.

These hefty birds can live for seven years and weigh up to six pounds.

Greater sage grouse are tied to the land and aren’t known for straying too far from where they were born. Flocks have been known to maintain the same territory for more than 80 years, passing it down from generation to generation.

“They’re creatures of habit,” Ellis said.

The biggest threats to the plains birds are territory fragmentation, land conversion to agriculture, energy development and infastructure and encroachment of conifers and cheat grass.

Though some believe wildfires to be a major contributor to their decline, Ellis said its not as big of a threat as people assume. During the 2017 Montana wildfire season, one of the most severe in the state’s history, sage grouse lost just over one percent of their territory.

Sage grouse are most well known for their mating displays that take place in the spring. Males converge on open areas, known as leks, in good view of the females. Then, they puff out air sacks in their chests, fan their tails and dance.

After females lay their eggs, they incubate them for a month.

It’s stressful to be a mother sage grouse. Nests are near always threatened by predators and harsh weather. Sage grouse are considered to have low reproductive rates because few eggs survive until they hatch.

But those that survive have a long life of evading predators ahead of them.

Everything eats sage grouse

“Everything,” Ellis said.

Ravens, crows, golden eagles and other raptors prey on them from above. Ground squirrels raid their nests. Humans even have a short hunting season, though the birds’ sage-heavy diet makes the meat taste gamey and like, well, sage.

Sage grouse require wide open spaces, not because they’re roamers but because it minimizes the number of things that will be able to kill them. As soon as powerlines, buildings and even fenceposts start popping up, so do birds of prey.

Sage grouse aren’t too keen on death from above.

“It’s not the building that kills them, it’s the perch that it brings in,” Ellis said. “The big thing about sage grouse is they need really big, open landscapes. They don’t tolerate roads, transmission lines, towers, buildings — it’s not like it kills them. They just move away.”

Ellis said captive breeding and release programs have been attempted, but none have seen much success. Released birds typically don’t live long because they are unfamiliar with the land, its predators and where to hide.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has given Alberta, Canada 40 birds per year, Ellis said, but they don’t survive well.

Greater sage grouse are tied to their historical lands and have been known to return to burned historical territories after fires.

What’s next

The future remains uncertain for the sage grouse.

Ellis said a lot of the work that has been done to protect the birds has been unraveled in favor of more flexible management practices to allow oil and gas development. Conservationists worry this will lead to the greater sage grouse being listed as an endangered species by 2020. Others argue that current management is too restrictive and opening up portions of it to development wouldn’t have a significant impact on the birds.

The comment period for the Department of the Interior’s proposed amendments will close on Dec. 1, 2017.