On the vast fields of sagebrush across the West, more male members of a uniquely American bird called the greater sage grouse are performing a dance that went out of style for humans long ago: the funky chicken.
Scientists who undertook a glorified head count of the troubled chicken-like sage grouse found that the number of males shaking their tail feathers to attract females on wide open clearings in the brush called leks increased by more than 60 percent since 2013. A survey released Monday by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies counted more than 80,000 males in a census earlier this year.
This was hailed as good news by the wildlife agencies and various groups working to conserve the sage grouse, which suffered dramatic population declines as humans invaded its habitat. But as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prepares to determine whether to list the animal as threatened or endangered by Sept. 30 — a designation that 11 states that cover the 165-million-acre sagebrush habitat oppose — there are questions about the timing of the positive development, and its influence on that decision.
States fear that sage grouse will become the new northern spotted owl. That animal’s 1990 listing as threatened in the forests of Washington, Oregon and California impacted logging, in much the same way that a similar listing for the grouse could impact ranching, farming and energy development in those three states, as well as Nevada, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
In 2010, Fish and Wildlife determined that the bird deserved some protection because it was losing its home to ranchers with grazing cattle, homeowners in spreading housing developments and industries such as mining and oil drilling. In an attempt to avoid a listing that would protect sage grouse with a suite of federal regulations, states have poured $200 million into an effort to help the bird’s recovery.
Across the states where bushy sagebrush grows, public officials, helped by conservation groups such as the Nature Conservancy, have cut trees that invaded the once-treeless brush so that hawks and other birds that prey on the sage grouse can’t perch on branches, eyeballing hens and chicks for a potential meal. Workers are replanting brush that was ripped out by development and removing brush that allows wildfire to decimate bird habitat.
The health of sage grouse population reflects the overall health of the bird’s 165-million-acre sagebrush habitat. Sagebrush supports deer, elk, songbirds and a range of other species that have existed for centuries, and states currently rely on them for hunting and tourism.
Chris Saeger, director of the Western Values Project, said the estimated rise in the number of males shows “years of hard work and investments are paying off for the grouse. … Now it is time to bring these unprecedented planning efforts over the finish line, and ensure certainty for both the sage grouse and western economies for generations to come.”
But others said there’s no way to tell whether any of that work helped increase the number of males counted on those leks. “As much as I would like to say it did, we don’t have the data to suggest that,” said San Stiver, sage grouse coordinator for the western agencies, known as WAFWA. What the number says is “the habitat is active and can produce birds,” Stiver said.
“Produce birds” is science speak for saying that the funky chicken danced by males, which puff out their chest and make loud noises, is attracting females, and nature is taking its course. Except that’s more than likely happening in vastly lower numbers than early in the last century.
Conservationists say some 16 million sage grouse went from nearly blacking out the sun when they took wing over the sprawling western sagebrush to being nearly blacked out by the destruction of their habitat. Scientists who conducted the survey for the western agencies say that while sage grouse habitat almost certainly declined due to human interference, the 16 million number isn’t backed by reliable data and the historic population of sage grouse is unknown.
In May, the Bureau of Land Management announced a long-awaited plan to manage sage grouse so they don’t go extinct. As part of the plan, the BLM, which controls millions of acres of public lands with the Forest Service, will regulate miners, energy developers and ranchers who hold federal leases to work in sage brush wilderness in 10 states.
Sage grouse likely won’t see any benefit for decades, Stiver said.
“Sometimes it takes 60 years for sagebrush to mature. The efforts we’re making now will pay dividends in the future,” he said.