Archive | July, 2013

Jonah-II-Gas-Field-300×199 wilderness society

A Sage-Grouse Natural History


Sage-grouse were easier to find in 1900.  (©Nevada Historical Society, Robert Fulton Collection)

Sage-grouse were easier to find in 1900. (©Nevada Historical Society, Robert Fulton Collection)

The history of the American West is told in the tales of those who traveled, lived and loved the land. For sagebrush grasslands, these narratives often included reference to, reverence of, or concern for one of its most charismatic residents: the sage-grouse.

The colorful history of the sage-grouse has been chronicled by Native Americans, explorers, settlers, government surveyors, naturalists, and in some of the most important accounts written about the West and the environment. Lewis and Clark first described sage-grouse in their journals in 1805 (Captain Clark even made a drawing of sage-grouse in his journal), and Rachel Carson devoted pages to sage-grouse and their habitat in her seminal book, Silent Spring, more than 150 years later.

The earliest indicator of the significance of the grouse on the landscape is evinced by the wide recognition afforded the bird in Native American languages. Many tribes utilized the sage-grouse for food and emulated the grouse in ceremonial dress and dance. The names they gave to sage-grouse are many and diverse, including “Seedskadee,” “Sisk-a-dee” and similar variants used by Rocky Mountain tribes (the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming is named after sage-grouse); tribes in the Great Basin called the bird “Ooˊ-jah” and “See-yook”; and tribes in California “Kōpˊ-te”;  “Hooˊ-dze-hah,” and “Hood´-ze-ah´.”

Later, westward settlers frequently reported sage-grouse in their diaries, and depended on the bird for food in places where often no other game was available. Our names for places and landmarks throughout the Interior West today include countless “sage hen” and “sage grouse” creeks, basins, flats, hills, trails and roads in the West—further evidence of the species’ importance and historic ubiquity in the region.


No fewer than 26 land uses and related effects threaten sage-grouse today, including oil and gas drilling. (©Peter Aengst, The Wilderness Society)

No fewer than 26 land uses and related effects threaten sage-grouse today, including oil and gas drilling. (©Peter Aengst, The Wilderness Society)

Prior to the turn of the 20th Century, sage-grouse were still so plentiful that westerners described flocks that “darkened” and “clouded” the sky in Montana, Wyoming and Nevada. The birds were so abundant that they might have controlled grasshopper and cricket outbreaks, a phenomenon that taxpayers now spend millions of dollars to manage with insecticides. In one amazing report of sage-grouse from the late 1800s the observer compared sage-grouse to the “old-time flights of passenger pigeons.”

Unfortunately, however, the story of sage-grouse is also one of the species’ decline in the West. Sage-grouse numbers began to diminish with the loss and degradation of the high desert, the wide-open landscape most imagine when picturing the iconic American West. In 1916, William Hornaday of the New York Zoological Society was among the first to express concern for sage-grouse, publishing a pamphlet titled “Save the Sage Grouse from Extinction: A Demand from Civilization to the Western States.” Even before then, Oregon had reduced both the season and bag limit for sage-grouse in 1908, and by 1922 the state game warden worried that sage-grouse may become extinct in the state. Wyoming closed hunting for sage-grouse between 1937 and 1950. Other states also closed or reduced hunting seasons for extended periods. Although sage-grouse populations tend to cycle up and down, the overall trend was set.

While a number of factors have contributed to declining sage-grouse populations, Rachel Carson zeroed in on the federal government’s range “improvement” programs as a primary cause of disappearing sage-grouse and other wildlife. Beginning the 1950s-60s, and at the behest of the livestock industry, federal agencies declared war on sagebrush, burning, plowing and destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of the native vegetation in favor of non-native forage crops for livestock. Carson pointedly, and poetically, described the effects of these programs on sage-grouse in Silent Spring:

“One of the most tragic examples of our unthinking bludgeon­ing of the landscape is to be seen in the sagebrush lands of the West, where a vast campaign is on to destroy the sage and to substitute grasslands. If ever an enterprise needed to be illumi­nated with a sense of the history and meaning of the landscape, it is this. For here the natural landscape is eloquent of the interplay of forces that have created it. It is spread before us like the pages of an open book in which we can read why the land is what it is, and why we should preserve its integrity. But the pages lie unread…Along with the plants, animal life, too, [evolved] in har­mony with the searching requirements of the land…The sage and the grouse seem made for each other. The original range of the bird coincided with the range of the sage, and as the sagelands have been reduced, so the populations of grouse have dwindled.”

The sage-grouse now occupies little more than half of its original range (no longer occurring in many places where Lewis and Clark reported seeing them), and current populations are estimated at less than 10 percent of historic levels. Although the war on sagebrush has generally abated, it still continues in some places. Oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing, off-road vehicle use, transmission corridors, roads, fences, and myriad other factors have also conspired to eliminate sage-grouse from the landscape, and may put them on the endangered species list.

The species’ plight has finally compelled the federal government to initiate a massive planning effort to improve conditions for the grouse. It is our hope that sage-grouse’s rich history in the West can help remind people of what the grouse once meant, and still mean, to America, and can motivate current conservation planning to do all that is required to protect and recover the species. We still have an opportunity to restore sage-grouse and their habitat so that future generations can tell their own tales about the grouse.

Posted in Federal Policy, Imperiled Wildlife, Public Lands, Uncategorized0 Comments

Sage Grouse Crossing

A Conservation Checklist for Sage-Grouse

The greater sage-grouse has been of conservation concern for more than 100 years, when both locals and visiting naturalists first observed population declines. Conservationists began advocating for protection for the species 15 years ago and, after a “convoluted journey” through the federal Endangered Species Act listing process, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will finally consider the species for listing in 2015.

This date certain for a listing decision has compelled a multitude of federal and state agencies and local entities to finally develop conservation strategies to protect and recover sage-grouse and their habitat. Defenders of Wildlife is heavily engaged in these planning processes. We are analyzing thousands of pages of documents and working to improve federal and state conservation strategies for the species. To this end, we have developed a science-based checklist to evaluate planning efforts.

A successful sage-grouse conservation plan will include, at a minimum, the following measures to ensure sage-grouse conservation. They are based on sage-grouse and sagebrush ecology, as well as key principles of conservation biology of protecting and managing habitat to conserve species. The checklist also addresses three sage-grouse habitat categories—“priority,” “restoration” and “general” habitat—that federal and state agencies have already defined for sage-grouse planning purposes.

  1. Identify, designate and preserve priority habitat essential to sage-grouse conservation and restoration. The first rule for conserving imperiled species is to prevent continued loss and degradation of habitat essential for the species persistence. This is especially important for sage-grouse, which are highly sensitive to disturbance, particularly in their breeding, nesting and brood-rearing habitat. Protecting winter habitat is also critical for sage-grouse conservation.
  2. Create and expand existing protected areas critical to sage-grouse and sagebrush conservation. Some proportion of remaining sage-grouse range is so important for conservation that it should be protected and specially managed as permanent reserves for sage-grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species. These can include new and expanded national wildlife refuges; Congressional designations, such as wilderness and national conservation areas; and administrative allocations, like areas of critical environmental concern. A reserve system should protect large expanses of sagebrush steppe, important seasonal habitats and connectivity, and the system should be large enough to achieve the goals of biological representation, and ecological redundancy and resiliency.
  3. Designate restoration habitat to focus habitat restoration efforts. Restoration habitat is degraded or fragmented habitat that may not be currently occupied by sage-grouse, but might support the species if restored. Land managers should target passive and active habitat restoration efforts in these areas to extend current sage-grouse range and mitigate for future loss of priority habitat.
  4. Reduce and mitigate threats in sage-grouse general habitat, outside of priority habitat, protected areas, and restoration habitat. The goal for managing general habitat is to support habitat connectivity and increase sage-grouse populations within and outside of the other sage-grouse habitat designations.
  5. Develop adaptive management plans with sciencedriven triggers that indicate when management is not leading to desired outcomes. Plans should institute adequate, consistent, objective-driven monitoring keyed to appropriate indicators that provide the information needed for adaptive management—and then require changes when current management fails to meet conservation objectives.

These simple, sensible precepts, if adopted and implemented across sage-grouse range, would provide a basis for sage-grouse restoration in theWest. We encourage Defenders’ members and supporters to participate in the current planning process for greater sage-grouse. Navigating these bulky, intimidating, but vitally important conservation plans will be far more manageable with our conservation checklist in hand.

Sage Grouse Crossing

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Preserving the Genetic Diversity of Endangered Species

Preserving the Genetic Diversity of Endangered Species

How can conservationists prioritize species that are already classified as endangered? The answer to this difficult question might just be hidden inside the genes of the endangered species themselves.

Conservation resources might be finite, but the threats to our natural world are not. With so many species struggling to survive, it is more important than ever for conservationists to use their limited funding in the most effective (and efficient) way possible. But how are conservationists supposed to decide which endangered species should be given top priority? In the past, the value of a species – whether economic or social – was the dominant factor when it came to directing funding. In recent years, however, the science of prioritization has become an increasingly important aspect of conservation biology1. One emerging form of scientific prioritization focuses on a relatively new way of measuring the value of a species: their genetic uniqueness.

Genetic uniqueness, also known as evolutionary distinctiveness, is a way of prioritizing species that takes into account the relationships between species groups. According to this method, a species with a lot of close relatives should not be prioritized over a species with no close relatives, which will have been designated its own branch in the tree of life. While every species is genetically unique, most species share some of their genes with their close relatives. (Just look at chimpanzee and bonobos, which share 99.6% of their DNA with each other and 98.7% of their DNA with another close relative, humanity2.) This means that species with few or no close relatives contain genes that can’t be found in any other species.

Darwin's Tree of Life

Charles Darwin’s preliminary sketches of the tree of life were some of the earliest attempts to establish the relationship between species. By using our modem understanding of these relationships, scientists can prioritize genetically unique species for conservation.


Why are genes so important when it comes to setting priorities for conservation? Genes are the building blocks of life. They determine the characteristics of a species and, through the process of natural selection, help species to adapt to future conditions3. By preserving genetically unique species instead of lots of genetically similar species, conservationists stand a better chance of maintaining the essential foundations of ecosystems that are ready to survive whatever the future has in store. Given the uncertainties of climate change, this adaptability will be even more important in the decades to come.

Although it would be naïve to assume that conservation can take place without taking into account the social and economic aspects of conservation, studies have shown that species with a high level of genetic uniqueness are actually more threatened than other species4, 5, 6.Whatever method of prioritization is favored, time is of the essence when it comes to conserving the genetic heritage of the species that share our planet.


1. Game, E.T., P. Kareiva, and H.P. Possingham. 2013. Six Common Mistakes in Conservation Priority Setting. Conservation Biology 27: 480 – 485
2. Science Now. 2012. Bonobos Join Chimps as Closest Human Relatives. Available at: [Accessed 2/7/2013]
3. Crozier, R., P-M. Agapow , and M.A. Smith. 2009. Conservation genetics: from species to habitats. Biology International 47: 73 – 79
4. Redding, D.W., and A.Ø. Mooers. 2006. Incorporating Evolutionary Measures into Conservation Prioritization. Conservation Biology 20: 1670 – 1678
5. Daru, B.H., K. Yessoufou, L.T. Mankga, and T.J. Davies. 2013. A Global Trend Towards the Loss of Evolutionarily Unique Species in Mangrove Ecosystems. PLoS ONE 8: e66686
6. Isaac, N.J., S.T. Turvey, B. Collen, C. Waterman, and J.E. Baillie. 2007. Mammals on the EDGE: Conservation Priorities Based on Threat and Phylogeny. PLoS ONE 6: e296

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.