Greater Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus urophasinaus)
The greater sage-grouse, the largest native grouse in North America, once ranged across some 500,000 square miles in sixteen states, and in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada, across the vast region sometimes called “the sagebrush sea.” It’s a bird that is exquisitely tied to the sagebrush ecosystems of the West. Sagebrush is considered one of the most imperiled ecosystems in the world. The destruction of sagebrush habitat resulting from the direct, indirect, and cumulative effects of livestock ranching and agriculture, oil and gas drilling, and other forms of human development have resulted in a steady decline in the population numbers of this iconic bird.
The greatest threats to sage-grouse, as determined by the FWS, are due to the past, present, and future destruction and modification of sagebrush habitat. These threats result from infrastructure (for example, fences, power lines, and roads); urbanization and human disturbance; grazing livestock and wild horses; mining of minerals and fossil fuel drilling and extraction; nonnative, invasive cheatgrass and other introduced and planted non-native grasses; pinyon-juniper encroachment in occupied sagebrush habitat, wildfires that are out of the range of natural variability (due to cheat grass and altered fire regime); renewable energy development, and climate change.
As noted by the FWS, sagebrush habitat cannot easily be restored, if at all. According to scientists, there is no longer any pristine sagebrush steppe habitat left anywhere on the continent. There are no Research Natural Areas or other reserves set aside specifically for protection of this ecosystem. Over 350 species of plants and animals are also dependent upon sagebrush habitat, and at least 50 animals are considered sagebrush obligate species, which means they are so closely evolved with sagebrush that they cannot survive without it.
It is thus essential to maintain vast areas of the most intact sagebrush habitat, and to remove all sources of threats to the ecosystem wherever possible—and on publicly owned land, this should be possible. Roughly half of all greater sage-grouse occupied habitat belongs to the U.S. federal government (BLM and USFS). However, powerful interests in the ranching, mining, and oil and gas drilling industries have been successful at blocking all efforts to create reserves of sagebrush for the benefit of sage-grouse and other sagebrush obligate species on our publicly owned lands.
This sagebrush obligate species utilizes all species of sagebrush in the genus Artemesia for food and habitat, as well as other plants associated with the sagebrush biome, such as Purshia tridentata (bitterbrush). Sagebrush is a long-lived species (living more than a hundred years) that is adapted to an infrequent fire return interval or frequency (30 to more than 100 years between fires). Disruption of the fire regime due to introduced grasses that the ecosystem did not evolve with, notably cheat grass and red brome, has resulted in recurring, catastrophic fires that are unnatural and pose a threat to continued viability for species associated with sagebrush, particularly for sage-grouse. Invasive annual grasses like cheat grass occupy the spaces between sagebrush and other perennial species, spreading fire from shrub to shrub. Cheat grass now occupies most of the sagebrush biome.
Sage-grouse are known best for their mating ritual, that includes male courtship displays and competition between males conducted in openings in the sagebrush called leks. The male fans his spiky tail and struts back and forth, puffing up his feathers and inflating sacs of bare, yellow skin on the neck. At the same time the male emits a unique, low popping sound that can be heard for long distances by the females.
Both sexes of the greater sage-grouse are dark grayish-brown with mottled gray and white speckles, fleshy yellow combs over the eyes, and a long, pointed tail. Adult males also have a white ruff around the neck and are considerably larger than the female, ranging in length from 26 to 30 inches and weighing between 4 and 7 pounds. Adult females range in length from 19 to 23 inches and weigh between 2 and 4 pounds. Sage-grouse are related to turkeys, pheasants and other gallinaceous birds.
Adults feed primarily on sagebrush and other green plants, and supplement their diet with insects, particularly grasshoppers. Young sage-grouse and females during reproduction must consume plants that are nutritionally richer than sagebrush. The leaves of sagebrush are the primary food for sage-grouse in the winter. The reliance on nutritious non-sagebrush forbs and grasses by reproductive females and juveniles indicates that grazing livestock are directly completing with sage-grouse for these plant foods when they share habitats.
Between 1988 and 2012, the Canadian population declined by 98 percent. By 2012, they were no longer extant in British Columbia, and only 40 to 60 adult birds remained in Alberta; and in Saskatchewan, only 55 to 80 adult birds remained. By 2013, sage grouse were no longer extant in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arizona, and New Mexico. Today they are limited to California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming, and Washington. In 2004, the FWS estimated that the population had declined approximately 86 percent from historic times. An estimated 271,604 square miles of sage-grouse habitat remain; and of this total, the BLM manages forty-five percent and the Forest Service manages six percent.
In California, greater sage-grouse distribution historically included portions of eastern Siskiyou, Shasta, Plumas, Sierra, and Alpine counties; and portions of the Modoc Plateau and Great Basin regions of northeastern California including Lassen, Modoc, and Inyo counties as far south as the Owens Valley near Big Pine. Elevation ranged from 3500 to 12,000 ft. They are no longer extant in Siskiyou and Shasta counties, and have significantly declined in numbers in Modoc County. The species is currently most abundant in the Surprise Valley in northeastern Modoc County, eastern Lassen County north of Honey Lake and east of Eagle Lake, and in the Bodie Hills and Long Valley areas of Mono County.
The Mono and Inyo county populations are now considered to be a genetically distinct population, called the Bi-State Distinct Population Segment (Bi-State DPS). The range of the Bi-State DPS occurs over an area approximately 170 miles long and up to 60 miles wide and includes portions of five counties in western Nevada: Douglas, Lyon, Carson City, Mineral, and Esmeralda; and three counties in eastern California: Alpine, Mono, and Inyo.
From 1999 to 2005, there have eight petitions to list greater sage-grouse for protection under the Endangered Species Act, and ultimately, all have been denied. In 2010 the agency again reviewed the status of greater sage-grouse and decided that listing the bird under the Act was “warranted,” but that such listing was “precluded” by more pressing listings, for which the agency lacked the time and staff to complete.
In 2015, the agency reversed itself and proclaimed that listing was not necessary, because of an unprecedented conservation effort. A multi-state, multi-agency collaboration with private and public landowners completed 98 sage-grouse/sagebrush management plans in 10 states. The plans did not withdraw lands from grazing or oil and natural gas development, but did call for establishment of Sagebrush Focal Areas (SFAs) that withdrew approximately 10 million acres of federal lands from new hard mineral extraction claims. However, in June 2017 the Trump administration’s Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke ordered revision of all 98 sage-grouse management plans, explicitly to make them less of a “burden” to oil and gas development as well as livestock grazing. The interagency task force appointed to respond to the order issued a report in October 2017 that recommended eliminating or modifying SFAs, modifying or eliminating “hard triggers” that would result in changing management course when impacts to sage-grouse are identified, and other industry-friendly measures that will result in weakened conservation for the greater sage-grouse. In response to the report, the BLM issued a cancellation notice in October for the Sagebrush Focal Area mineral withdrawal.
Although environmentalists did not believe the 2015 revised management plans went far enough to protect the bird, this latest assault goes far beyond the failures of past administrations and is proof of the importance of timely federal listing for threatened and endangered species.
The Bi-State Distinct Population Segment
In 2013, the FWS prepared to move ahead with listing the Bi-State DPS as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. However, in 2015 the agency also withdrew that decision. As with the greater sage-grouse, listing would not be required because a new management plan and collaborative effort to protect the Bi-State DPS would be implemented through a series of inter-agency, bi-state, multi-stakeholder actions, outlined in the Bi-State Action Plan. Unlike the other greater sage-grouse management plans, the Bi-State Action Plan has not been targeted for revision by the Trump administration.
In 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildllife Service was sued in federal court for is decision to reverse the determination that the bi-state sage-grouse shuold be listed. Citing a number of legal violations, the suit was brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, Desert Survivors, WildEarth Guardians, and Western Watersheds Project. In May, 2018, the court ruled that the agency's actions were "arbitrary and capricious" and "there are no rational ground's for the services' conclusion." The court also found that there was insufficient evidence that the measures proposed to bring the sage-grouse back from the brink of extinction would actually be effective. In August, the judge ordered FWS to reinstate the 2013 decision, and to move forward with the listing decision by October 1, 2019.
There are six Population Management Units (PMUs) in the Bi-State region, and four of the six are at risk of extirpation. The two PMUs with the largest and relatively stable numbers are the Bodie and South Mono PMUs, both located in the Inyo National Forest.
According to data collected by the USFWS, in 2014 there were estimated to be 2,497–9,828 sage-grouse within the Bi-State region. Actual lek counts of males ranged between 427 at the lowest year count (2008) to 1,404 males in 2012, the highest count, with data collected between 2004 and 2014. In 2017 California DFW did not issue any tags to allow sage-grouse hunting in these zones due to continued low lek population numbers. Sage-grouse hunting is still allowed in California in the greater sage-grouse area as well as within the Bi-State DPS. Sage-grouse hunting of the Bi-State DPS has not been allowed in Nevada since 1998.
In the Bi-State region, eighty-nine percent of the region is under federal land ownership. At the same time, within the range of the Bi-State, there are at least thirty-five grazing allotments on federal land covering more than one-million acres permitted by the USFS and BLM. In the South Mono PMU within the Inyo National Forest, seventeen grazing allotments permit a total of 6,347 cow-calf pair Animal Unit Months (AUMs) and 8,996 AUMs for sheep. In the White Mountain PMU within the Inyo NF, 3,560 AUMs of cattle are currently permitted. (Read here for definition of Animal Unit Months). No proposals are currently in play to limit or reduce grazing in these alloments.
In the Bi-State area, sage-grouse home range is 1,502 acres to greater than 61,000 acres. This variation is just one of the several complexities involved with managing and monitoring sagebrush habitats for sage-grouse. Research and science play a big role in the Bi-State Action Plan. Radio telemetry studies are on-going and are providing new information about home ranges and habitat preferences.
Other threats, while less significant, also contribute to the overall endangerment of the species’ viability in combination with more serious threats. Examples of less severe threats include West Nile virus, predation, and hunting. Threats can work synergistically, creating a significant challenge to sage-grouse viability. The decision not to list the Bi-State DPS will be reviewed again by the FWS in 2020.
The Inyo National Forest Plan Revision
The largest numbers of the Bi-State DPS occur within the Mono Basin in the Inyo National Forest. The Inyo NF lists the Bi-State DPS sage-grouse as a species of conservation concern in the draft forest plan revision. According to Forest Service staff, the final plan will be virtually identical to the draft plan in regards to the sage-grouse, and is expected to be released soon, perhaps in March 2018. Read SFL coalition comments on the draft plan, here.
The most significant difference between the alternatives in the draft plan, for sage-grouse, is an increase in acres that would be treated for restoration of sage-grouse habitat in Alternatives C and D. However, these treatments appear to be limited to increases in projects to remove juniper and pinyon pine. Such efforts have yielded inconsistent results when applied to sagebrush restoration. The direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts to sage-grouse from grazing are not explicitly identified in the DEIS.
The new forest plan has many good recommendations that, if implemented, will certainly help to conserve the bird’s habitat, particularly in known leks and nesting areas. Common-sense provisions will aid not only the sage-grouse, but the many other unique plants and animals that are endemic to the (now fragmented) Sagebrush Sea.
Latest Scientific Research
The Sage Grouse Initiative (interagency)
SFL and coalition comments on draft Inyo NF forest plan, and species of conservation concern
Conservation Plans and Land Management Plans
Nevada-California Greater Sage-Grouse Land Use Amendment, EIS, and ROD, (BLM and USFS, 2015)
The Sagebrush Bird Conservation Plan (PRBO 2005)
Bi-State Action Plan (2012)
USFS film on bi-state, from Humboldt-Toiyabe NF