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Declining Sage Grouse in the American West: Can the Threat of Listing this Species Help Transform the Bureau of Land Management?


The sage grouse is a widely ranged, sparsely distributed species that lives in the vast "Sagebrush Sea" in the western US and Canada. Two sage grouse species have experienced significant declines over the past 50 to 150 years. Conservationists have identified the sage grouse as an important indicator, umbrella, and flagship species for sagebrush ecosystems, and have developed a conservation strategy centered on the bird, including the preparation of petitions to list sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. The Bureau of Land Management manages most sage grouse habitat. Resource users fear the potential impacts of listing sage grouse--the "spotted owl of the desert"--on activities Bureau of Land Management permits on federal public lands. For the same reason, conservationists look forward to the changes listing the sage grouse might bring to agency, policy and land management. There is already evidence that the threat of listing sage grouse may be contributing to an evolving conservation ethic within the agency, which may lead to improved management of public lands.


As the national environmental conscience has grown, federal land management agencies have been forced to recognize--and even prioritize--watershed, wildlife, and recreational values over traditional resource extraction on federal public lands. For agencies that historically served commercial interests, redirecting their bureaucracy and policy to promote environmental protection and restoration is often a contentious and painful process. Usually, pressure must be applied from both outside, and to a lesser degree, inside a federal agency to impel it toward conservation goals.

The most fundamental changes in federal land management to date have been driven by species listings and resultant requirements under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) (although the Clean Water Act and the Indian Trust Doctrine also promise to be effective means to land protection). The best example may be the sweeping changes that the northern spotted owl precipitated in forest management, timber cutting, and wildlife conservation in Pacific Northwest forests managed by the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Listing the spotted owl helped transform the Forest Service and BLM forest management branch into more conscientious managers of public lands and watersheds by requiring improved habitat planning under the National Environmental Protection Act and the National Forest Management Act. (The agencies' behavior under the second Bush Administration remains to be seen.)

Sage grouse (Centrocercus spp.) are poised to bring similar changes to more divisions within the BLM that manage mostly tree-free grasslands and deserts. Sage grouse live on vast stretches of BLM land in what is generally known as the "Sagebrush Sea." The mere threat of listing sage grouse under the ESA has already yielded positive results for the grouse and its habitat. More importantly, the increased attention on sage grouse conservation may be contributing to important changes within BLM as a whole, and specifically in their management priorities.

Sage grouse declines

Settlement of the West exacted a heavy toll on sagebrush habitat, and in turn, sage grouse populations that declined in the face of human development. Over the past 200 years sagebrush habitat has been fragmented, damaged, and destroyed by a plethora of human activities. These activities include livestock grazing; agricultural and urban conversion (including suburbanization and "ex-urbanization," or the establishment of new communities far outside of existing urban areas); invasive species (especially cheatgrass); herbicides and pesticide application; altered fire regimes; oil and gas development; off-road vehicle use; and the placement and construction of utility corridors, roads, and fences. The BLM estimates that 220 million acres of sagebrush country have been reduced to 150 million acres of mostly, degraded habitat across the west (BLM 2000).

As early as 1916 observers were concerned about sage grouse becoming extinct. Before the effects of habitat degradation were well known, William Hornaday (1916) blamed sage grouse population declines on liberal hunting seasons and automobiles that sped hunters along high desert roads into the heart of sage grouse country. At this time, the species began to disappear from the periphery of its range. In the early twentieth century, Ober (1920) noted, "The sage hen is one of our grandest game birds, a bird that should be carefully guarded to prevent extinction ... about twenty years ago when the sage hens made their homes in Long Valley, which is in the south end of Mono County and just northwest of Inyo County's north boundary line. At that time it was considered mere play for the cowboys to dash with their horses into a large flock of sage hens, one thousand or more, and strike down two or three with their quirts or cow whips before the birds could possibly get out of the way ... Of the thousands which a few years ago inhabited our plateaus, now only a few scattered hundreds remain."

Western states attempted to reverse the population decline by banning sage grouse hunting, often for many years at a time. Yet, except for a short time in the 1950s (not coincidently the golden years for federal predator control programs), sage grouse populations have continued to decline. Since 1980 the sage grouse population has been reduced by an estimated 35 to 80% (Braun 1999). Sage grouse no longer occur in Arizona, British Columbia, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Oklahoma (Braun 1999). The present size of the breeding population is estimated at 140,000 individuals scattered in two Canadian provinces and eleven western states (Braun 1999).

Sage grouse as focal species

Conservationists recognize that focal species--indicator, umbrella, flagship, and keystone species--are more likely than others to drive ecosystem protection by forcing agencies to practice better habitat management (Miller et al. 1999). Sage grouse meet the definition of three of the four types of focal species. Due to their dependence on healthy sagebrush habitat, sage grouse are one of few definitive indicator species for the sagebrush steppe ecosystem. Because they require vast areas of habitat to survive, sage grouse are also umbrella species; conserving and restoring sage grouse habitat will benefit other sagebrush obligate species such as the sagebrush vole (Lagurus curtatus), sage sparrow (Amphispiza belli), sagebrush lizard (Sceloporus graciosus), and the pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis). The charismatic sage grouse--also known as sage hen, sage cock, spine-tail grouse, "cock of the plains"--are also appreciated and respected by the public, conservationists, wildlife managers, and resource users, making them flagship species for the little-known, little-loved Sagebrush Sea. Finally, although sage grouse are not considered true keystone species, they continue to be important prey for predators and there are reports that large numbers of sage grouse might act as control agents for grasshopper outbreaks. The sage grouse's status as a focal species explains why federal and state agencies, resource users, and conservationists are involved in protracted discussions about sage grouse conservation, and why the news media has followed this species so closely.

Current conservation efforts

In 1998 conservationists attending the Desert Conference hosted by the Oregon Natural Desert Association expressed their concern about declining sage grouse populations throughout the western United States and Canada. Discussion of the conservation community's role in sage grouse conservation was hindered, however, by our lack of understanding of the sage grouse and its habitat requirements. In January 1999 the American Lands Alliance and fifteen cosponsors hosted the Sage Grouse Status Conference in Boise, Idaho, to learn more about sage grouse ecology. Originally intended to be a small, informal discussion between conservationists and upland bird experts, the conference swelled to 90 participants representing local, regional, and national conservation groups; state and federal wildlife and land management agencies; university wildlife programs; and the livestock grazing and hunting communities. Conference presenters confirmed that sage grouse are in trouble (American Lands 1999). Not surprisingly, the conference also exposed disagreement among conservationists, land management agencies, and resource users on the best way to conserve sage grouse, and protect and restore their habitat.

Following the conference, American Lands commissioned a rangewide status review of sage grouse. In January 2000 American Lands and partners filed a petition to list the Gunnison sage grouse (Centrocercus minimus), a newly described species of sage grouse that lives in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah, as endangered under the ESA. The US Fish and Wildlife Service failed to respond to the petition. As litigation proceeds on the Gunnison sage grouse petition, we are preparing to petition the wider ranged greater northern sage grouse for listing under the under the ESA. American Lands is also coordinating a public education campaign, media, and legal strategies to protect the sage grouse and its habitat.

"Spotted owl of the desert"

The prospect of listing high profile, widely distributed species like sage grouse has generated an array of responses from agency representatives and other observers, some privately calling sage grouse a savior for the BLM, others publicly describing a doomsday scenario. One BLM biologist stated, "listing the sage grouse would drive [BLM] to its knees" (AP 2000). Another highly placed range administer stated, "a listing would be the single biggest impact on range-lands management in all of history." These statements are great press, but are subject to endless interpretation.

The media has seized upon such statements, dubbing sage grouse "the spotted owl of the desert" and reporting in hundreds of articles on the potential local, regional, and West-wide impacts of listing sage grouse under the ESA. The increased attention on sage grouse has in turn prompted a flurry of meetings among federal, state, and local governments; resource users; and other interest groups to craft dozens of management plans and memoranda of understanding in an attempt to avoid listing. These parties fear that listing will reduce resource use on BLM lands and believe that local planning will best serve the grouse.

Whether these plans result in real protection for sage grouse is yet to be seen. Such planning processes are often bogged down by discord among special interests seeking to maintain the status quo. The BLM's participation in such planning efforts is also conflicted. The agency is torn between multiple publics and bombarded by new science that predicts disastrous consequences from past management practices. Meanwhile, current BLM management schemes (as dictated by Congress) often prioritize resource use over habitat conservation and restoration, forcing the agency to preserve some level of commercial use in sage grouse recovery plans even when it might harm the species.

As the threat of listing sage grouse has grown over the past three years, both the BLM and individual personnel have appeared overwhelmed and confused about how to deal with the species. There are, however, indications from biologists and others involved in sage grouse conservation that attitudes are shifting within BLM. Today there is a growing awareness that the sage grouse cannot be saved under current management paradigms and that changes are in order.

Transforming the BLM

Perhaps recognizing the shortcomings of local conservation planning (and certainly to prepare for the impact of listing sage grouse), the BLM has initiated multiple efforts to conserve sagebrush habitat that have piqued the interest of conservationists. In a brave exercise of self-analysis, the agency has developed a long list of BLM programs and actions that pose a "high risk" to sage grouse. The list includes livestock grazing, fuels and fire management, land development, weed control, mining and other programs. By recognizing these management practices as detrimental to sage grouse habitat and by confronting the commercial interests that profit from them, the agency has begun its reformation into a better land manager.

The BLM is also requesting and spending money to protect sage grouse. Recovering sage grouse habitat is one purpose of the multimillion dollar Great Basin Restoration Initiative developed by the BLM to restore millions of acres charred by wildfires and choked by weeds in Nevada. The BLM national budget for fiscal year 2001 included millions of dollars to inventory sage grouse in the West. The agency is now accounting for sage grouse presence in local grazing management plans and expansive resource management plans and has joined other agencies to map sage grouse leks and hundreds of thousands of acres of sagebrush habitat. In June 2001 the BLM will host a major conference on sage grouse ecology and management.

The BLM may be seeking to balance natural resource management with other ecosystem services. In presenting its fiscal year 2001 programs to Congress, the agency portrayed itself as a protector of open spaces and watersheds instead of reinforcing its image as a traditional resource manager. In 2000 the agency created the National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS) to manage dozens of national monuments, national conservation areas, Wild and Scenic rivers, wilderness and wilderness study areas. Additionally, an associate director in the BLM was promoted to develop guidance and policy for the NLCS. Although the agency promised to impose no new legal protections or restrictions for NLCS units, the system will be fertile ground to develop progressive BLM leaders and strengthen the conservation ethic within the agency.

The BLM also watched Congress and the Clinton administration promote sage grouse conservation as the species gained notoriety. Sage grouse are mentioned in President Clinton's proclamations enlarging Craters of the Moon (Craters 2000) National Monuments and establishing the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument (Missouri Breaks 2000) in Idaho and Montana, respectively. Recent legislation creating the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area in Nevada also mentions sage grouse (Black Rock 2000). Finally, in the House of Representatives' floor debate on the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act, Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) used sage grouse to argue in favor of protecting Steens Mountain and surrounding environs in southeastern Oregon. All of these designations were made on BLM land. The Steens Mountain legislation sets a precedent as it designated the country's first livestock-free wilderness area where sage grouse, pronghorn, and redband trout will no longer be harassed by domestic livestock (Salvo and Kerr 2001).

Conservationists advocating, organizing, and litigating against poor management practices are also contributing to the BLM's reformation.

For example, in the past several years the agency has lost important court cases attempting to defend outdated grazing practices even while its solicitors were successful defending former Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt's Rangeland Reform regulations that seek to conserve and restore grazing allotments. Currently, some BLM staff are considering the ecological and political benefits of permanent grazing allotment retirement.

Some agency personnel and conservationists are seeking more profound changes to hasten the transformation of the BLM. An organization of 1000 current and former BLM employees requested President Clinton to rename BLM lands as "National Public Lands" last autumn (Milstein 2000) to improve their public image and give them equal status to national forests, national parks, and national wildlife refuges. Conservationists have even proposed that Congress and the Department of Interior change the name and mission of the BLM to manage the new National Public Lands System (Kerr 2000). Changing the BLM's name and purpose would bring new vision and leadership to the agency and help negate its past as a servant to commercial interests.


Regardless of what the media reports, conservationists advocate, or the administration directs, sage grouse will be saved or lost by the BLM as the largest landowner in the species' range. Many actions described above and the transformation of the agency predicted by this article will not occur until both species of sage grouse are listed under the ESA. Like the spotted owl, listing sage grouse will increase funding for habitat restoration, build public support for grouse conservation, and provide legal and political cover for land managers working to change resource use on BLM lands.

While listing species is supposed to be a biological question, the process has become a litigious affair often lasting many years. Politics also affects the decision of whether to list a species. Sage grouse have probably drawn the attention of lawmakers and the Bush administration in Washington, D.C., who would oppose listing to protect commercial use on BLM lands. Also, some individuals within the BLM will always oppose changing the agency's management priorities whether the sage grouse is listed or not. For these reasons, conservationists must continue to pressure the BLM, the Bush administration, and Congress to accept that change is inevitable, and for the sage grouse, the sooner the better.

Sage Grouse Natural History

Sage grouse have inhabited the western United States and southern Canada since the Pleistocene epoch (Wetmore 1951). The sage grouse was discovered by Lewis and Clark in 1806 and was given its scientific name, Centrocercus urophasianus (Latin for "spiny-tailed pheasant"), in 1831 (Patterson 1952). Their original range closely conformed to the distribution of tall and short sagebrush covering what became sixteen western states and three Canadian provinces. Historic accounts reveal that sage grouse were very abundant throughout their range prior to European occupation of the West (Rasmussen and Griner 1938, Grinnell et al. 1918, Burnett 1905, Coues 1893). Flocks of thousands were commonly described (Edminster 1954), and the total population may have numbered two million birds. Sage grouse bones have been discovered in caves used as shelter by aboriginal people in northwestern Nevada for whom "the sage grouse was probably valued as a food species" (Grayson 1988). Prior to the arrival of white settlers, Native Americans also utilized the sage grouse for food, and created dances and costumes to mimic the grouses' strutting behavior (Autenrieth 1981).

Sage Grouse Ecology

The sage grouse is a beautiful, charismatic bird. Both males and females are a mottled, brownish-gray. With the exception that males weigh twice as much as females (males weigh up to six pounds), there are only subtle differences between the sexes during non-breeding periods. White chest feathers and specialized head feathers distinguish cocks during the spring breeding season. Cocks also sport long black tail feathers with white tips; female tail feathers are mottled black, brown, and white.

The sage grouse mating ritual is fascinating to observe. In the early spring, the more colorful males congregate each dawn at "leks," ancestral strutting grounds that are clear of large sagebrush and tall debris. Leks vary in size from one to forty acres (Scott 1942) and may be located up to 50 miles from sage grouse wintering areas (Pyrah 1954). To attract a hen, cocks strut, fan their tail feathers, and swell their breasts to reveal bright yellow air sacs. The progression of wing movements and inflating and deflating air sacs elicits a rumbling, popping "swish-swish-coo-oo-poink!" Sage grouse often gather at leks again in the evening and cocks will strut throughout the night when the moon is bright. Altogether, the sage grouse mating ritual is among the most stirring and colorful natural history pageants in the West.

The sage grouse is aptly named, deriving not only its name, but food and shelter from the shrub. The grouse uses different habitats throughout the year (always near sagebrush) foraging on grasses, wildflowers, insects, and sagebrush. The species' ideal nesting habitat has two components: a sagebrush overstory and a thick grass/forb understory (Gregg 1992; Wakkinen 1990; Braun et al. 1977). Both the over- and under-story provide food, shelter from the elements, and cover from ground predators and raptors (DeLong et al. 1995; Webb 1993; Gregg 1992). Newly hatched chicks feed on abundant insects found in the grasses and forbs (Johnson and Boyce 1990).

Chicks follow their mother to summer range consisting of an interspersion of sagebrush stands and forb-rich areas, including wet meadows and riparian areas (Connelly 1999). A good winter range provides sage grouse with reliable access to sagebrush under all snow conditions. Such habitat is essential as sagebrush is the only food source available to the grouse in the winter. During the year sage grouse will range between leks, loafing and feeding areas, brood rearing areas, wet meadows and riparian zones, and wintering habitat, sometimes covering over 100 acres of terrain (Hulet et al. 1984). Thus, vast expanses of healthy sagebrush habitat and functioning hydrologic systems are necessary to support sage grouse.


The author thanks Andy Kerr for reviewing drafts of this article.

Literature cited

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Author:Salvo, Mark
Publication:Endangered Species Update
Date:May 1, 2001
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