Sage grouse ecology isn’t just for the birds |

Sage grouse ecology isn’t just for the birds

A male sage grouse vies for attention of a flock of females during a mating ritual in Northern Ut
Photos by Todd Black |

Although studies by various wildlife organizations have reported the greater sage grouse population has been in decline for the past 50 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded in 2015 that the birds were warranted for protection under the U.S. Federal Endangered Species Act.

Allison Jones, the executive director for the Utah Wild Project, a nonprofit that provides science-based strategies for wildlife and land conservation in Utah, said regardless of the finding, the species was precluded from the list because the service placed priority on other endangered species.

“The decision came after the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management decided to join forces in 2010 to amend all of the nation’s land-use plans, which included sage grouse habitat,” Jones said. “They gave land management agencies five years to show them that they could manage and protect the sage grouse species habitats. And the species wasn’t listed on the ESL, because of these changes.”

Jones, along with Dr. Terry Messmer, a Utah State University professor of wildlife conflict management, will speak about sage grouse ecology and conservation at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 1, at the Swaner EcoCenter, 1258 Center Drive at Kimball Junction.

“The birds are the litmus test, the canaries in the coal mine, an indicator of how healthy our steppe systems are in our state…” Allison Jones,Utah Wild Projectexecutive director

Registration for the event, which is co-sponsored by the Sierra Club Wasatch Back Network, is $10 per person and $5 for Swaner EcoCenter members. The Sierra Club will also provide pizza and light refreshments to be served at 6:30 p.m. The presentation will begin at 7 p.m.

Jones will speak about how Utah fits in with national trends while Messmer will speak specifically about what’s happening in the state.

“Utah is a small player in terms of the range-wide sage grouse situation,” Jones explained. “We don’t have as much sage brush habitat as Wyoming, Southern Idaho and Nevada. So we’re anywhere between three to five percent of the total population.”

Sage grouse population is at a crossroads nationwide, she said.

“This is because the land-use plan amendments are in trouble, because the Trump Administration is looking to chuck those out the window,” Jones said. “It has made it very clear that fossil-fuel development is going to be prioritized more than before, and that’s all you need to know that the birds in those areas where there are rich in fossil fuel are in danger.”

The Utah populations are also threatened by a combination of different situations that are found state to state, Jones said.

“In Wyoming the big threat to the core habitat is oil, coal and methane drilling,” she said. “We have that threat in the Uinta Basin, but sadly many of the birds who used to live there don’t anymore because of oil and gas (drilling). And while there are little pockets in Southern Utah, that’s really the only place in our state where oil, gas and energy development threaten sage grouse population.”

The other big threat to the birds, especially in the West Desert, is wildfire.

The fire cycle is unpredictable because of cheatgrass, which is an invasive weed that is highly flammable, Jones said.

“The birds are the litmus test, the canaries in the coal mine, an indicator of how healthy our steppe systems are in our state,” she said. “And no one is even talking about climate change and the future of the species.”

Messmer said there is a direct correlation between weather conditions and sage grouse population.

“The birds focus on nesting in the spring, and when they do that, they try to take advantage of green sagebrush vegetation,” he said. “That vegetation attracts bugs that the chicks eat for the first two to three weeks of life. So if we don’t get good winter snowfall or spring rain and moisture, we have less of the vegetation. And that means the bird will choose not to nest in those areas.”

Another issue Messmer will address in his part of the discussion is the difficulty of pinpointing Utah’s overall sage grouse situation within the national realm.

“There is a tendency from the standpoint of the federal government to mandate from a standard that is taken from observations from a larger population, but sage grouse populations are pretty unique from place to place, and there are unique traits in individual populations,” he said. “Given that Wyoming has 40 percent of the sage grouse population in the world, it become the focus. But when you look at Utah’s sage grouse habitats and populations, you will see they are much more fragmented.”

One reason Utah’s population is hard to measure is because of the lack of sagebrush compared to Wyoming.

“We do have some good sagebrush tracks, but not as large and contiguous,” Messmer said. “So the birds that occupy the Utah areas may have to fly 30 miles or so from where they breed because there is no contiguous links.

“Although 70 percent of Utah lands are managed by the Federal Government, what people don’t realize that half of the sage grouse population are located on private land,” Messmer said.

Utah’s elevation is also different than Wyoming, he said.

“So you can see if people want to manage Utah sage grouse populations based on Wyoming studies, we run into problems, because the guidelines for sage grouse habitats and leks (areas where the birds gather for mating season) weren’t developed in Utah,” he said. “So I’ve been involved in our ow research for 20-plus years and developed some Utah-specific guidelines that differ from national policies.”

Messmer will talk about the work he and his colleagues have done with local communities regarding sage grouse.

“I will post questions regarding how much habitat do we need to maintain a sage grouse population and how much development can the birds tolerate,” he said.

Messmer said there is no accurate count on how many sage grouse live in Utah.

“The population is based on lek counts, but therein lies the dilemma,” he said. “At birth the sex ratios for male and female sage grouse and pretty equal, but there are differential mortality as the birds age. So we can visit leks, and look at lek trends, but if I count 20 males on a lek, how many am I not counting. And how many females does that represent in a population?”

Jones said while there is a lot of work to do with sage grouse ecology, the crux of the future lies on the 2015 land-use amendments that left the birds off the Endangered Species list.

“If these amendments were the entire reason the fish and wildlife reasons did not list the greater sage grouse, we need to give the amendments a chance to work,” she said. “We need to give them a chance and then go on from there.”

Dr. Terry Messmer, Utah State University Professor of Wildlife Conflict Management, and Allison Jones, executive director for The Wild Utah Project, will speak at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 1, at the Swaner EcoCenter, 1258 Center Drive at Kimball Junction. Registration for event, which is co-sponsored by the Sierra Club Wasatch Back Network, is $10 per person and $5 for Swaner EcoCenter members. Pizza and light refreshments will be served at 6:30 p.m. The presentation will start at 7 p.m. For information or to register, visit

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect updated registration information.

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