Using Our Voice, For Greater Sage-grouse

Great Sage Grouse Strut

Greater Sage-grouse Strut, Sublette County, Wyoming

By now, nearly every one if us has heard something about Greater Sage-grouse and the pending listing decision for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The listing decision is scheduled for September 30 and while we’ve been waiting to find out what the US Fish and Wildlife Service will do, some in Congress have been seeking ways to undermine the process. Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado has added a rider to the Senate Appropriations Bill that would essentially stall any meaningful conservation actions on behalf of Greater Sage-grouse for six years. If that were to happen, we would lose all of the progress, the goodwill, the great collaboration that’s been steadily increasing in the buildup to a listing decision. The Endangered Species Act is under attack, that’s been going on for years. The Sage-grouse decision is bigger than anything we’ve seen before, with eleven states and 165 million acres of Sage-grouse habitat staked out as Priority Areas For Conservation (PAC). If you’ve read this blog before, or followed the Sage Spirit project, you know that grouse are imperiled because of habitat fragmentation, loss, and the collapse of an ecosystem that impacts 350 species. Failure to take serious actions on behalf of Greater Sage-grouse is an ecosystem failure. There is only one sagebrush sea. What can we do? Write a letter, a real letter to your senators and tell them that Greater Sage-grouse are in trouble and don’t belong in an appropriations bill. Let science determine the next steps. Make sure to tell your senator what the American West means to you – the personal aspect is so important. Audubon has made it easy for you with a letter that you can e-sign, but it’s even better if you use some of the language and add your personal connection. I’ve sent letters to Senators Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet (CO) and it feels great. Thanks for writing, the Audubon letter follows: Continue reading “Using Our Voice, For Greater Sage-grouse”

Appalling Ignorance

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“The best way to protect the sage grouse or the prairie chickens is to sell it to someone.” “Is there a shortage of cows in our country? No, because someone owns cows.”

Senator and presidential (R) candidate Rand Paul speaking in Elko, Nevada

Greater Sage-grouse need habitat, sagebrush habitat, large unbroken expanses of good habitat with grasses, forbs, insects; a landscape free of disturbance. They are hard-wired to the sagebrush ecosystem and simply can’t survive without sage. Captive breeding programs haven’t been very successful – and relocating has mixed results – Sage-grouse and 350 other western species still need sagebrush habitat. The only way ranchers can “raise” sage-grouse is by protecting their habitat and we have a government program for those ranchers. It’s called the Sage Grouse Initiative and it’s a very successful government program. This noble bird of the American West has been here for 25 million years and we have a plan to recover the species. Deal with it.

Camera Shy

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Camera Shy – a Greater Sage-grouse male displays on the wrong side of my camera. Sublette County, WY

A lighter side outtake from my Sage Spirit project: In 2010, I set up a DSLR camera with a Pocket Wizard remote trigger and wrapped the whole thing in sagebrush and camo on a lek (mating ground) south of Pinedale, Wyoming. The Sage-grouse were very active that morning and this particular male didn’t mind the camera, he was just on the wrong side. The idea here was to make a wide angle view of grouse on a lek, and although it didn’t work out…yet, there will be another try with a different setup next season. Greater Sage-grouse are a candidate species for protection under the Endangered Species Act, with a listing decision scheduled for September 30, 2015. With all the misinformation and ill-informed media attempts to divide, it would be easy to overlook great collaborative work happening in the West – folks from all sides are coming together to conserve habitat for Greater Sage-grouse and the suite of species who rely on unbroken sagebrush landscapes to thrive. It’s a central part of our story. In partnership with Audubon Rockies, The Wilderness Society, and The Sierra Club, Sage Spirit, The American West At A Crossroads will be published by Braided River in July of this year.

On Their Own?

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A Greater Sage-grouse male displays on a Sublette County, Wyoming lek, or mating ground.

Congress has taken control of the endangered species process again. The new budget spending bill would block any federal funds going toward determining whether the Gunnison Sage-grouse or Greater Sage-grouse — two species of endemic, imperiled western birds — are eligible for listing under the Endangered Species Act. So, the whole business of collaboration to save the species and avoid a listing gets turned on its head, grouse get thrown under the bus – for what? You can fill in the blank here____ bowing to Big Energy? Greed? Here’s the thing, and you know this if you’ve visited this blog, the sagebrush ecosystem is the iconic landscape of the American West. The Greater and Gunnison Sage-grouse are the iconic species for the ecosystem, so they get the full attention of folks who like to write “chicken-sized birds that live in sagebrush.” Grouse are the bellwhether for the health of a massive ecosystem in collapse, and there are plenty of declining species worthy of habitat protection and a very close watch, each a canary in the coal mine. This budget process really stinks when politicians who claim they’re not scientists (when discussing climate change) usurp the role of dedicated professionals working hard for collaborative solutions. I’m not crying for a listing, just a process that affords species, every threatened species, a chance to recover. These are our lands, our wildlife. What will folks write when mule deer are endangered? “A brownish, medium-sized, hooved mammal that winters in sagebrush, except those that hang around the edges of western towns, browsing on lawns and gardens. Once plentiful, mulies were highly sought and coveted by hunters until their decline.”

Gunnison Sage-grouse Threatened!

Gunnison sage grouse, Gunnison Basin

Gunnison Sage-grouse Male Display : Prints Available

In a move that’s sure to rile up folks on all sides, today the US Fish and Wildlife Service designated the Gunnison Sage-grouse as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act. (by the way, that’s my image accompanying the article) Anyone close to the issue and knowledgeable of Gunnison Sage-grouse knows the bird is endangered – they are endangered on the IUCN Red List. But, before we go off and point fingers, claim injustice, and look for a villain, we should all take a collective deep breath. It’s true that we lack the funds to manage Endangered Species as intended when the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, and it’s true the bird is endangered, but what would a listing do to improve the situation? Gunnison is different. The entire extended community has pulled together to conserve habitat and save the species. Colorado Parks and Wildlife is leading a Rangewide Conservation Plan that has widespread community support and is the benchmark for western communities. The good people of Gunnison have seen this coming for two decades and have worked hard to recover their namesake bird. The new decision gives Gunnnison Sage-grouse some protection – let’s wait and see how the critical habitat piece affects ranching and recreation.

Meet The Gunnison’s

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A male Gunnison Sage-grouse displays on a lek in the Gunnison Basin, Colorado

April is mating season for Sage-grouse in the West. There are two species: Greater Sage-grouse, which are more widespread, larger grouse; and Gunnison Sage-grouse, which are primarily located (87% of the total population) in the Gunnison, Colorado Basin. Gunnison Sage-grouse also have smaller, satellite leks, or mating grounds in west and southwest, CO and eastern Utah. Both Sage-grouse species are candidates for listing as Endangered Species, and Gunnison Sage-grouse are America’s fourth most endangered bird behind the ivory-billed woodpecker, California condor, and the whooping crane; but they are not on the endangered species list. Already endangered when they were recognized as a separate species from Greater Sage-grouse (GS-g), Gunnison Sage-grouse (GuS-g) have been the focal point of a regional collaborative initiative to improve habitat and recover the species. GuS-g were scheduled for a new listing decision this month, but the listing has been delayed, again. Would GuS-g benefit from listing? I don’t know, it’s a complex issue, but I do know that the extended Gunnison community has collaborated in the spirit of saving their namesake species and set a great example in the rural West. There are roughly 4,500 GuS-g in existence, total. They have a different bubbles popping vocalization than GS-g, are about 2/3 the size of GS-g, have broad white bands on tail feathers, and thick filo plume “pony tails” that flip up when males display for females. They also lek differently (in my observation), frequently using very large areas and splintering into small groups, using sagebrush for cover; presumably from predators. Golden eagles are the top predator of both Sage-grouse species, an easy target when they’re on a lek, displaying out in the open. Both Sage-grouse species live their entire life in sagebrush, and considered sagebrush “umbrella species”, meaning that by conserving sagebrush habitat, we help out the other 350 or so species that rely upon healthy, contiguous sagebrush habitat. Those species are under the Sage-grouse “umbrella.” If you’ve followed this blog at all, you know that my work is heavily focused on the sagebrush ecosystem. Continue reading “Meet The Gunnison’s”

Sage-grouse Season

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Greater Sage-grouse Female and Displaying Males In Snow – April in the heart of Greater Sage-grouse habitat. Sublette County, Wyoming

As snowfall steadily increased under a pewter sky, male Greater Sage-grouse did their best to impress the few females on the mating ground, or lek in a remote sagebrush setting south of Pinedale. The chests puffed up-yellow air sacs full-tail fanned-filo plumes standing tall on top of their heads display of male Greater Sage-grouse is said to be one of the most impressive in the animal kingdom. They sure work hard at it – every morning from mid-March into May, they arrive in darkness to perform their ancient ritual. Females will choose who to mate with and one male on a lek will do 80% of the mating. Sage-grouse are particularly vulnerable on a lek, where golden eagles can spot them at long distances. I found this particular lek when I saw a pile of feathers nearby, a telltale sign that an eagle had made a kill for an easy meal. But eagles aren’t why Sage-grouse are an Endangered Species Act (ESA) candidate species. Humans have fragmented the sagebrush landscape with development, powerlines, roads, and mega energy development; resulting in a steady decline, a death by a thousand cuts. They are the ultimate indicator species, spending their entire life in sagebrush. Although the lead up to a September, 2015 ESA listing decision places Greater Sage-grouse in the spotlight, mule deer and sagebrush “obligate” songbird declines are tracking with grouse. It’s an alarming situation that may seem all about grouse, but conservationists understand the entire ecosystem is in collapse. Audubon Rockies has assumed a leadership role with a clear vision through their Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative and Wyoming has adopted the core habitat strategy to protect and conserve critical Greater Sage-grouse habitat. There’s a head-spinning amount of activity surrounding the Sage-grouse recovery effort, which continues to ramp up. Things are often complicated in the West, particularly when grouse live on top of enormous oil and natural gas deposits. The solutions are simple – respect wildlife by giving them freedom to roam and muster the courage to leave their remaining habitat undeveloped. The female Greater Sage-grouse in this photograph will mate and retreat to a nest under a sagebrush where she’ll sit on 6-10 eggs. A few will probably reach maturity and return to this same lek as they have for thousands of years, vital to the survival of the species. What can you do? Contact the good folks at Audubon Rockies and let them know you’d like to help. And of course I’ll always be happy to talk to you about Sage-grouse anytime.

Endangered!

Brooke Palmer, a seasonal trapper with the Colorado Division of Wildlife holds a female Gunnison Sage-grouse. The grouse was trapped and collared for relocation to “seed” a satellite lek outside of the Gunnison Basin.

It’s been a long wait for a Gunnison Sage-grouse (GuS-g) listing decision and the Jan. 10 US Fish and Wildlife News Release didn’t surprise anyone close to the issue. The Service officially proposed listing the Gunnison Sage Grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In the News Release, the USFWS applauded local partners and agencies – and rightfully so, Gunnison formed a GuS-g working group years ago, bringing together the entire extended community where grouse habitat exists. Ranchers, conservation groups, Western State College, land managers, and government agencies are on the same page and managing the grouse as if they were already listed. Sisk-A-Dee is managing the public viewing blind and special events like the Gunnison Sage-grouse Festival so people actually have an opportunity to see and learn about the grouse.The ESA is a powerful tool and it’s not easy to get a species listed – there’s a long waiting list of “Warranted But Precluded” species deserving of ESA protection. But there are only 4,000 or so GuS-g’s left in the world, mostly in the Gunnison Basin, literally all of the eggs in one basket, so they had to be listed. Continue reading “Endangered!”

Yellowstone Grizzlies

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Grizzly Sow With Cubs : Prints Available

 "Quad mom", a Yellowstone grizzly sow who had four cubs in 2010, rests on a hillside with the two surviving cubs, now sub-adults. I had just watched these rather large bears breast feed in the sage. They'll be on their own soon and the sow will mate again.

I just returned from two weeks in Yellowstone National Park, where I was working on my Sage Spirit book project. I was mostly focused on grizzly bears that are in the lower elevation sagebrush flats and meadows in spring. As summer heats up, it’s more difficult to find grizzlies as they move higher. I visited “Quad mom” every day for the first week, observing the sow and her two surviving, and nearly grown cubs foraging in the sagebrush on Swan Lake Flats for hours each day. The bears would rock back and forth as they pulled on roots and dug for bugs, bulbs, rodents – anything to satisfy an omnivorous appetite. They spent a couple of days on a bison carcass across the meadow a half mile distant. I only saw the sow and sub-adult cubs one more time after they ran to the forest one evening. Maybe she sent the cubs out on their own and prepared to mate? We’re fortunate to be able to observe these noble creatures – long may they roam! Continue reading “Yellowstone Grizzlies”

Seeing Grouse

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Greater Sage Grouse Male Display : Prints Available

A male greater sage grouse inflates his chest to impress a female during the spring mating season. Grouse use the same "lek" for mating throughout their lifespan and are severely threatened by oil and gas industrialization and habitat fragmentation.

I wrote this article two years ago when Secretary Salazar announced that Greater Sage-grouse are “warranted, but precluded” from protection under the Endangered Species Act. Greater and Gunnison Sage-grouse mate on leks in the sagebrush ecosystem from late March into early May.

Seeing Grouse

The only good place for a Sage Grouse to be listed is on the menu of a French bistro. It does not deserve federal protection, period.” Congressman Jason Chaffetz (UT-03).

Sitting in a cold, drafty blind on a moonless April morning, it’s so dark that I can’t see the walls that will keep me hidden from Greater sage grouse. The stillness and quiet are pure, the stars like diamonds. I woke at 2:30 for the privilege of a few hours with these iconic western birds – birds that are getting a lot of attention these days.

During the wait for grouse and light I quiet my body, but my mind doesn’t follow. My fatigue-addled state yields a stream of consciousness like a sleepless night with senses alert and thoughts shifting rapidly – “my toes are cold, there’s a breeze – I hope it doesn’t get windy, coffee would be nice.” I think about the buildup to the listing decision and the tin badge politicians carrying on about jobs and energy, what the bird means to so many people and to Western wildlife with their need for expanses of unbroken sage. I reflect on the migrating pronghorn heading back to Grand Teton National Park, the notion that a National Park means the animals are protected inside an imaginary border, yesterday’s gray wolf stalking 1,000 elk stacked up for migration, and my new friends, Buddy and Rick, who traveled all the way from Florida to see and photograph this special bird. I chuckle because I still can’t see a damn thing. Continue reading “Seeing Grouse”

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