By Rich Rusnak – Idaho Chapter Executive Committee and Greater Yellowstone Campaign Volunteer
An ocean of sagebrush borders the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) on several fronts. These often unappreciated lands lie in the shadow of Yellowstone’s majestic peaks and thermal and megafauna drama. In the not too distant past, these lonely steppes of sage held most of the GYE’s megafauna in an ages-old cycle of migration, supporting both predator and prey in an abundance we can scarcely imagine today.
Along with the thousands of bison and pronghorn migrating from winter to summer range, there also thronged a shy and graceful creature in synchronous abundance – a creature solely reliant on an undisturbed expanse of sagebrush. Once numbering in the tens of millions, today the Greater Sage-Grouse survives on dwindling broken habitat separated from the core GYE by myriad habitat degradations. The sage grouse (centrocercus urophasianus) population is under intense pressure from all sides, natural and unnatural. From coyotes to magpies, natural predators are ever present in the life cycle of sage grouse. Human encroachment has altered the landscape systemically, all seeming to affect the sage grouse life cycle in some way.
Collectively, mega fires, invasive plants, fences, buildings, power poles, irrigation structures and millions of livestock all break down the continuity of cover that sage grouse rely on for completing their lifecycle. With a lack of adequate nesting cover, the brooding chicks are easy prey and habitat degradation results in a high loss of juvenile birds. Successful brood rearing is directly related to availability of taller, dense herbaceous cover provided by an unbroken artemesia plant community. Simply put, the more cover, the harder it is for predators to find the vulnerable ground-nesting sage grouse during the critical chick rearing period.
I once observed this predator vs. prey drama unfold while in sagebrush country. Out of curiosity I stopped to watch a Northern Harrier’s repeated swooping dives into a heavily roaded, sage-covered hill. After several aggressive attempts, I saw a very agile hen sage grouse bolt skyward to intercept the persistent raptor. I had never seen a sage grouse fly straight skyward, but this hen seemed desperate in her determination to pummel this predator. The Harrier persisted its swooping dives, easily avoiding the frantic grouse’s counterattack. After several minutes of back and forth aggression, the hawk’s harrying paid off. A chick bolted away from the brush on weak, shallow wingbeats. Seemingly without missing a beat of its rhythmic attack, the hawk plucked the inexperienced chick from midair and disappeared over a rise. A Harrier by trade indeed. I have to wonder if this ages-old fight for survival would have been different had there been no roads, and thus heavier cover and continuity of habitat in which the chicks could hide. Nor will I ever know if this was the last chick of her brood. Were they all picked off due to the influence of a degraded habitat? I waited to see the survivors but experienced only a silence and absence of motion after the event passed.
In sagebrush country, there is a new urgency to help the sage grouse before it may become listed under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Federal and state agencies are developing various recovery plans for this stunningly beautiful bird in an attempt to preclude ESA listing. The Federal agency responsible for recovery of species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), is reviewing several western states’ plans and will determine whether the states are providing adequate recovery of the sage grouse. The USFWS is required to make a decision in 2015 on whether to propose protecting the sage grouse under the ESA.
There is hope, as the Sierra Club and many other groups are working to influence policy and sage grouse recovery plans, and to do on-the-ground work to aid sage grouse recovery.
On the western flanks of the GYE and just south of the Continental Divide, the Sierra Club is working with The Nature Conservancy to remove fencing and hang warning flags across miles of barbed wire fence in sage grouse habitat. The flags flash white at the slightest breeze, and alert the sage grouse, which are prone to crash into the top fence wires during bad weather or panicked flight. This unfamiliarity with structures seems to be killing a large number of sage grouse. They are vulnerable while moving between spring habitat used during lekking (mating) activity and the more protected summer ranges. The hens and chicks are especially at risk while traveling up mountains through degraded and sparse habitat. Our efforts offer some help along their short yet susceptible migration through the sage brush steppes toward the GYE’s Continental Divide in the Centennial mountain range that divides Montana and Idaho.
If you would like more information, please see the following links:
If you would like to volunteer or share thoughts with us on sage grouse protection, please contact the following:
Wyoming.sierraclub.org or WY Chapter of Sierra Club 307-742-0056, 307-733-4557
Montana.sierraclub.org or MT Chapter of Sierra Club 406-582-8365
Idaho.sierraclub.org or ID Chapter of Sierra Club 208-384-1023
The Nature Conservancy, Flat Ranch at firstname.lastname@example.org