Here are nine other species of animals that live — and die — alongside sage grouse in a declining habitat.
If this picture makes you stare and get all warm and fuzzy, don’t worry: That’s the pygmy rabbit effect. It’s what America’s smallest rabbit does. They might be the world’s cutest dirt daubers, digging burrows in the sagebrush to hide, nest and survive. They graze on sagebrush and are trying to hop back from a serious population decline, particularly in Washington, where only 30 were counted in the 2001.
This animal can clock up to 60 miles per hour on those skinny legs. The pronghorn is America’s fastest hoofed land animal, built to escape an ancient cheetah that once roamed in the Americas, says the Nature Conservancy. Once it was thought to be an antelope; now it’s thought to be in the sheep family. Their populations have stabilized after a historic decline, but their feeding grounds in the sagebrush are being fragmented by roads.
An old Jim Croce song applies to badgers: “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape. You don’t spit in the wind. You don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger and you don’t mess around” with badgers. They’re fierce when threatened. Rattlesnakes and scorpions? Badgers eat those. They are the University of Wisconsin’s fearsome mascot. Their populations are stable but under close observation.
The pretty melodies of this songbird can be heard throughout the sagebrush — filling other little birds with fear. Born, appropriately, with a black mask, logger head shrikes are carnivores that hunt and eat other birds. Lacking the talons of raptors, they skewer their prey with pointy beaks. They’re even known to impale other prey, such as lizards, on barbed wire. Their population is not endangered.
This beloved American deer has a very unfortunate name. They don’t look like mules; the moniker’s a dig at their huge ears. Mule deer grow to large sizes, and, like pronghorn, game hunters enjoy the challenge of hunting them, fueling that sort of tourism in the West. But human development has thrown their once prolific population into decline, which means that wolves, mountain lions, bears, eagles and coyotes that rely on them for food might eat less.
If you believe size matters, stop reading. The golden eagle is bigger than our national symbol. America’s largest bird of prey is a hunk among raptors. It swoops down on prey at up to 150 miles per hour, according to National Geographic, a mesmerizing sight. They almost never attack prey as big as livestock, but that didn’t stop ranchers from killing them to protect herds. Now the recovering population of golden eagles is protected by law.
Get a load of these little guys. That look on their faces is the epitome of cool. Relaxed, not bothered, just hanging out atop a thicket of tall sage, looking for prey. Burrowing owls are too cool even to dig their own burrows. They take over the abandoned homes of other animals. That might be one reason they prefer to live near prairie dog towns. They’re listed as endangered in Canada and threatened in Mexico and a species of concern in the United States.
Greater short-horned lizard
This reptile has horns and a rather disgusting super power. They build up blood pressure behind their eyes to squirt blood up to three feet at predators. Thought to be prolific around the turn of the last century, greater short-horned lizards are no longer common in the sagebrush. The Montana Field Guide says little is known about the species, but the trampling of sagebrush by livestock has probably had a detrimental effect on the lizard’s habitat.
This appropriately named bird’s mating songs fill the sagebrush in the breeding season. Males dip and dive around the brush in theatrical flight displays. They are in the family of thrashers and mockingbirds, though they look “like a washed out robin,” says the Audubon Society. Where habitat is healthy, sage thrashers thrive, but the bird “has declined in a number of areas with clearing of sagebrush flats,” Audubon says.
Sage grouse still dominate the conversation about the decline of the sagebrush. Here’s why: They are its pulse. Scientists call them an umbrella species, meaning that the health of their population reflects the health of the sagebrush. And the health of the sage grouse is not good. Their numbers were once likely in the millions, the Bureau of Land Management says. Now the population is only 200,000 to 500,000. Development is the problem — housing, oil and gas, mineral extraction, along with cattle ranching. Federal officials and conservationists say the people directly involved in those industries aren’t entirely to blame. Americans across the country hungrily consume all those things.