Greater Sage-Grouse threatened with habitat loss

By Delia Malone
RMC Wilderness Chair

sage grouse
Greater Sage-Grouse
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

We can talk about laws, and we can talk about environmental standards, air quality, water quality, habitat structure and species composition. But in the end conserving the Greater Sage-Grouse is about conserving our life; it’s about protecting and conserving what makes us the West.

The West is about vistas and broad expanses of solitude… where the air is so sweet and clear that you can hear the high tinkling song of the Horned Lark for miles, and where the high, lonesome cry of the Red-tailed Hawk pierces a sky so blue that it hurts. Not a West filled with roads and dust and debris from oil tankers with a noise so penetrating and a sight so devastating that all other sounds and thoughts of nature are obliterated into nothingness and all you feel is despair. This despair comes at the short-sighted greed that threatens to undermine the marvelous intricacy of evolution that has created the wonder of the Greater Sage-Grouse.

Laws and regulations do provide us, the public, with the power to protect our natural heritage—the lands and the wildlife that rely upon them. These laws acknowledge that land management agencies have a duty to the public to sustainably manage these ecological systems in perpetuity. Further, they provide the public the power and right of law to hold the agencies accountable for their actions. They require public land management agencies to give as much consideration, or more, to Sage-Grouse as they do to energy extraction or livestock grazing. They acknowledge that public agencies should serve all the public, not just a select few, in an attempt to achieve balance.

Is there a balance to be found? I’m not so sure… Sage-Grouse and pronghorn and penstemons are probably not concerned about balance. I think that they’re mostly just trying to survive by passing their genes on to their offspring. We talk of mitigation, remediation, balancing impacts and compromise… but wildlife has already been compromised and there is no mitigation for a critter whose habitat has been converted to an oil well or gas pad or trampled into oblivion.

Natural world values

When we value the natural world for all of the myriad vital resources provided to humans, as well as for its inherent, intangible values, only then do we find that the values of the natural world far outweigh the world of extractive commodities. Soils of intact sage shrublands store tons of carbon thereby helping to regulate atmospheric carbon and conserve water that maintains vegetation through periods of drought. Healthy sage shrublands provide pollinators, big game and livestock with forage… and they provide the habitat for the mating dance of the Greater Sage-Grouse… priceless.

Every year, in the spring, Sage-Grouse assemble at their ancestral lekking grounds—traditional sage habitat where hundreds of grouse gather and males “dance” to attract females. Males “boom” and strut and display their brilliant plumage, all in an attempt to convince female onlookers to accept them as their mate. After copulation each female lays six-to-eight eggs in a shallow depression beneath sagebrush at a site as much as 2.5 miles from the lek. Precocial young hatch 25 to 27 days later.

The presence of nearby brood-rearing habitat with sage overstory, herbaceous understory and abundant insects is critical to brood survival. In late spring and early summer, as sage habitat dries, females move their brood to wetter, food-rich areas such as seeps, wet meadows and riparian habitat which are then also essential to brood survival. In winter, Sage-Grouse are dependent on sagebrush for both food and cover.

Sage-Grouse are totally dependent on sage-dominated habitat, requiring a large, continuous, extensive mosaic of sagebrush habitat interspersed with native tall grass cover to protect nests from predators and sites with protein-rich forb and insect forage during nesting and brood-rearing. Historic Greater Sage-Grouse range in Colorado extended to the southern border of the state with populations in at least 23 counties. Currently in Colorado, Greater Sage Grouse occupy six counties but their numbers continue to decline and their survival is threatened by loss, fragmentation and degradation of sagebrush habitat. 

Livestock and Sage-Grouse can live together but only if the range is managed sustainably. Historic livestock management and domestic grazing has seriously degraded sage-grouse habitat by decreasing vegetation cover, increasing invasion of noxious weeds, installation of fences which fragment habitat and result in direct grouse mortality, and with water development which often degrades the riparian habitat important to brood-rearing.

Oil and gas drilling risks

Oil and gas development is a significant risk to Greater Sage-Grouse. Recommendations from  best available science  includes that all oil and gas drilling activities be prohibited within 3.3 miles of active leks and their associated nesting areas and that no surface disturbance, including road construction, be allowed within this distance of active leks.

In the end, the only question that we have to answer is, “Do such things matter?” Does the Sage-Grouse’s magnificent dance of life that has taken eternities to evolve, matter? Does the integrity of the sagebrush ocean matter? Do sage sparrows, lark sparrows, vespers sparrows and black-throated sparrows matter? Because these things can and will be gone in the blink of an eye unless we protect these treasures, our natural heritage, from the vagaries of human development.

Sierra Club advocates for endangered species protection for the Greater Sage-Grouse. We, however, acknowledge that many Colorado ranchers are, or have begun, managing their land and grazing sustainably. They do this by resting pastures and rotating grazing regimes to allow the recovery of sage and tall grasses. These lands consequently support healthy Sage-Grouse populations. Notably, land management practices that sustain Sage-Grouse also result in more resilient habitat that better supports cattle and big game, including elk, mule deer, pronghorn and songbirds.

Tools within the Endangered Species Act (ESA) can establish special regulations and should be used to accommodate these ranchers to ensure the continuance of sustainable ranching that maintains the integrity of the sage shrublands and Sage-Grouse populations.

However, no such exemptions or special dispensations should be granted to those activities that fragment the landscape with roads and development or that convert sage shrublands to agricultural fields, well pads, or to activities that degrade ecosystem function by overgrazing.  And no exemptions should be allowed for activities that degrade wetlands or alter hydrologic regimes that maintain habitat important to the rearing and survival of juvenile grouse… and ultimately to the long-term survivability of Greater Sage-Grouse populations. 

You can experience the dance of the Greater Sage-Grouse on their lekking grounds by contacting Conservation Colorado. You can participate in the plan to conserve the Greater Sage-Grouse by immediately contacting the Bureau of Land Management.

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