Sage-grouse, © NPS

Coast to Coast: Saving a Grooving Grouse in the Sagebrush Sea

Coast to Coast” is a summer blog series highlighting some of America’s most imperiled wildlife. By using the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s new state-by-state endangered species map, we will tell  stories about native plants and animals in unique landscapes where Defenders will be focusing its conservation efforts in coming years.

Though few in number, the greater sage-grouse is easy to spot. With its hunched shoulders and a puffed white chest, the large, grounded grouse looks like a cross between a turkey and an opera singer. In springtime, males like to put on quite a show as they sashay between the sagebrush and enter their arena. But these brazen birds aren’t fighting to the death; they’re dancing for potential mates. The lucky ladies get to choose the guys with the best moves.

Watch along with a bus full of Idaho high school students, who got to see this delightful dance up close during a field trip last spring:

While these birds put on a dazzling display, they are dependent upon a natural landscape called the “Sagebrush Sea.” Stretching from Washington to Colorado, this arid ecosystem is covered with sagebrush, a key source of food and shelter for sage grouse. Once teeming with trees, streams, wildflowers and hundreds of unique species, the Sagebrush Sea is steadily shrinking. Agriculture development, resource extraction and weed infestation have all contributed to its decline. In recent years, wildfires caused by extreme temperatures and drought have brought even more danger to landscapes across the western United States.

The resulting habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation has taken a toll on sage grouse over the last 50 years. Today, the species is only found in half of its historic range, and sage grouse aren’t the only ones in trouble. From rare pygmy rabbits to migratory birds that stop in the marshes that dot the Sagebrush Sea, hundreds of other species depend on this landscape. To save the sage grouse, we have to save the land that they and other species need to survive.

Sage grouse were denied federal protection in 2004 and are currently stuck in limbo on the list of candidate species. But Defenders isn’t waiting to take action. We’re fighting for stronger protections on our public lands, where energy development threatens important wildlife habitat. We’re also working with our colleagues at The Nature Conservancy and the Sagebrush Cooperative to develop incentives to encourage private landowners to conserve wildlife.

By protecting the Sagebrush Sea, we hope to ensure that America’s grooving grouse continues to have a place to strut his stuff.