For nine years, a team of researchers studied greater sage grouse hens in Nevada and basically watched their chicks die.
“They just disappear,” said Dan Gibson who led a study of sage grouse that was released Wednesday. The researchers caught females, put tracking collars on them, followed them to the areas where they built nests and checked on them nearly every week for observations that ended in 2012. “You see a female and her brood and she’ll have seven chicks with her. A week later, she’ll have five. Then three. Until slowly it goes to zero.”
This is the state of play in much of the vast sage brush sea that covers 11 Western states where sage grouse live. Once there were millions of them in Wyoming, Utah, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, Washington, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada. Now the federal government estimates that there are about 400,000.
Gibson’s study, published in the Condor: Ornithological Applications journal, is one of a few that details how the demise is happening. Long story short, rampant energy excavation and large gold mining operations have torn up the bird’s natural habitat, and hens haven’t adjusted well in their search for nests.
Anyone who has ever read anything about sage grouse may know how they mate. It’s the first thing that most observers mention. The males perform a dance that borders on the ridiculous to attract females — strutting, puffing out their chests and sometimes getting into vicious fights with other males on stages called leks. The ladies choose, there’s a puff of mating dust and she then flies away.
The researchers tracked the birds’ collars to 411 nests in eastern Nevada. Subtracting abandoned nests, they counted 350 with activity. Slightly more than a third were successful. They counted 862 chicks from about 100 hens. About 700 of the chicks died less than two months after hatching.
It appeared that the farther away from a breeding lek that hens flew, the better chance chicks had to survive. That could be because predators are attracted to leks by the concentration of sage grouse that are there, and because many leks are disturbed by nearby development where human activity and booming sounds frighten birds.
Chicks rely on insects and a flowering plant called forbs to survive. Gibson said there are not enough for chicks to eat. And there are not enough to eat because the insects and vegetation the birds rely on are no longer abundant. Why? Because of mines and hordes of grazing livestock let loose by ranchers that trample the landscape that once supported birds.
On top of that, Western states such as Nevada have experienced 10 years of various levels of drought. Climate predictions for the region, which include a possible 30-year megadrought in the Southwest brought on by uncurbed greenhouse gas emissions, don’t bode well for grouse food and habitat.
A civil war has broken out across the west over the fate of sage grouse. Wildlife biologists call the chickenlike bird an indicator species because its health reflects the health of the entire 167 million-acre sagebrush sea. The brush is nasty and even toxic to humans but it supports herds of antelope, elk, rabbits and birds.
Conservation organizations, public officials, energy executives and ranchers have squared off in a battle over whether to protect the birds or protect development that brings tax dollars to states. Their war is being fought with lawsuits, legislation, and federal rules and regulations that are criticized as too weak or too strong, depending on which angry side is talking.
The Obama administration announced about this time last year that it would not list sage grouse as threatened or endangered, dashing the hopes of conservation groups and ending the fears of state officials and ranchers who didn’t want federal oversight over large portions of the sage brush that would have followed a listing.
Instead, the Interior Department said it would try to save the bird another way — through a collaboration of federal agencies, states, ranchers, industry and environmental groups. Although scientists estimated that the bird’s population has plummeted by up to 90 percent from development in its habitat, federal officials concluded that enough fertile areas remain across 11 states for the sage grouse to someday thrive again.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called the collaboration and hundreds of million of dollars worth of work to improve the decimated sagebrush “truly a historic effort” at the time, but the truth was that few of the parties were happy. Soon after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the decision to not list the sage grouse, lawsuits against the federal plan were launched by at least one governor and one conservation group.
WildEarth Guardians flatly declared that industry had won and the birds lost. “The sage grouse faces huge problems from industrial development and livestock grazing across the West, and now the Interior Department seems to be squandering a major opportunity to put science before politics and solve these problems,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist with the organization.
Gibson said he hopes his study will help guide future land management decisions to protect sage grouse. “I would say there is still chance, opportunities for restoration to be effective,” he said. But that entails hard decisions that state officials have been reluctant to make — spending more money on improving habitat and stopping major mining and drilling operations.
Sage grouse in Nevada would be hard pressed to survive without those steps, Gibson said. Areas in Wyoming and Montana, where moisture hangs around a little longer after winter and spring, might better sustain sage grouse populations.
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