I was sitting in a class in Australia when my university lecturer, a world-renowned ornithologist, pulled up a slide of the greater sage grouse. As he excitedly described the elaborate behaviors of this bird and its significance to the sagebrush steppes of North America, I felt myself slouching farther into my seat. I wanted to become invisible so I wouldn’t have to admit that I, supposedly an animal behavior expert, had never bothered to study one of the world’s most iconic birds despite the fact that they lived in my backyard.
Found only in North America, greater sage grouse are the second only to wild turkeys as the largest North American game bird species. Their numbers once were so prolific that history describes flocks that would “darken the skies.” Settlers and my family made it through hard times subsisting on the bird. They have one of the longest fossil records of any North American bird species and evolved specifically to co-exist within the sagebrush ecosystem. For example, in winter, the greater sage grouse get all their nourishment from sagebrush.
Sage grouse were birds that I had taken for granted all of my life. Sure, I’d played my dad’s “bird dog” to flush and retrieved grouse during annual family hunts. I had stood by as mom complained that cooked grouse were less palatable than cooked sagebrush. As a notorious night owl, I’d never made the effort to roll out of bed before dawn and watch a bird that, as it turns out, is rather remarkable.
Sadly, greater sage grouse are on a path to extinction. The population has declined by as much as 99 percent from historical levels. In 2010, they became candidates for protection as an endangered species. Sage grouse are suffering because natural systems are out of balance. According to numerous independent scientific studies and the Bureau of Land Management, the greatest threat to grouse survival is habitat fragmentation. We need better land management to restore the balance between wildlife habitat and other activities.
When families are struggling to supply basic needs, it’s not always easy to see why one admittedly odd bird warrants our attention. My eyes first were opened in a classroom on the other side of the world, and since that time I’ve come to learn that greater sage grouse have value.
Sage grouse are an important part of the web of life in the West. When we protect habitat for sage grouse, we protect habitat for hundreds of other animals including elk, deer and antelope. All these species are important to our area economy.
I’ve partly made up for a lifetime of sleeping-in by helping to run “elk tours” each spring. In 2013, more than 100 people joined me at 4:30 a.m. after sleeping in area hotels to travel into the sage and watch the spring courtship dance. Grouse watchers purchased hundreds of meals and spent additional dollars for fuel and supplies. Bird watchers, wildlife enthusiasts and just the curious come from all around the world to see our sage grouse dance. There is no doubt that the grouse are contributing to our diverse economy.
Grouse conservation is not just about saving one bird species. Ranch lands and wildlife habitat often are one and the same. Efforts to conserve sage grouse present an opportunity to help ranchers take advantage of new incentives and develop innovative grazing techniques, while also restoring habitat and putting sage grouse on the path to recovery. In Moffat County, ranchers already have received substantial financial and technical support to create cutting edge water and fencing projects, seeds for restoration and incentive to conserve lands.
Private landowners are working together with conservation groups, government, scientists, wildlife managers and interested members of the public to create effective and enforceable plans that protect the best remaining habitat — plans based on science, not politics.
Beyond conserving grouse for wildlife watching or hunting, we have a responsibility to leave the world a better place for future generations. That means being good stewards of the land and protecting habitat for all wildlife. By protecting sage grouse, we protect the land and water that all of us — from hunters and hikers to anglers and ranchers — value and enjoy. And here in northwest Colorado, by protecting sage grouse we enhance our local economy. Saving sage grouse just makes good dollars and sense.