Sage Grouse Strut Their Stuff

The star of one of nature’s most spectacular spring shows is losing ground and may be headed for the federal Endangered Species List

"In a highly ritualized display, the male rears back, quickly draws his wings across the stiff feathers of the ruff several times, producing a swishing sound, and makes a couple of extraordinarily loud, liquid 'plops' that are amplified through the air sacs and can be heard as much as three miles away. The strut is repeated endlessly, eight or ten times a minute during the busiest display period after dawn. Now imagine dozens and dozens of males, all swishing and plopping away like mad, and you'll begin to understand why sage grouse courtship is considered one of the great wildlife spectacles on the continent," writes Scott Weidensaul.

The author joins biologists in Idaho as they track sage grouse wearing tiny radio transmitters in an effort to better understand these remarkable birds and to determine how much of their habitat has to be preserved if they are to thrive. If the destruction of their harsh, shrub-steppe plains home—which once stretched across the Western plains of southern Canada and the United States—cannot be controlled, sage grouse will continue to decline in number.

When Lewis and Clark encountered the sage grouse on their journey west, there were two million birds, according to one estimate, and now their numbers are down to around 200,000. Momentum is building to list the sage grouse under the federal Endangered Species Act. Many predict the effort will result in an environmental battle to match the spotted owl/logging debate. The most serious threats to sage grouse habitat are range fires, farming and livestock grazing. Sage grouse are big birds, weighing up to seven pounds, and they are built to fly. A group of 400 birds in one Idaho study required 800 square miles of land. Unfortunately, the land required to preserve the grouse habitat falls under a number of owners, such as public agencies and individuals, with different goals and priorities.

The way sage grouse advocates see it, writes Weidensaul,"in the end, the sage grouse is only a symptom of a wider, more insidious ill—the way Americans have destroyed the sagebrush landscape of the West."

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