Take Action for Nevada Sage-grouse
Finding common ground for a threatened bird
Why the Nevada Wilderness Project gets up early to protect sage-grouse
It’s 5 a.m., well before sun-up, and cold enough to see your breath.
Nevada Wilderness Project scientist Craig Mortimore checks his gear while the pilot fires up the helicopter. With a deafening roar, the ship lifts from the desert floor and disappears into the dark sky. Over the next few hours, they will cover hundreds of air miles, flying over some of the roughest and most remote terrain of Nevada-California border.
The mission is to find something that is becoming increasing rare these days in Nevada – sage-grouse. Before most of us have had our first cup of coffee, Mortimore will visit dozens of points on the map to determine if sage-grouse are gathering for their annual mating rituals. The flat, open areas used by male sage-grouse to strut, display their feathers and puff out their chests for the female birds are called leks, and they are a key indicator of the overall health of the Bistate Sage-grouse population.
Craig’s scouting trip will be augmented later with ground-truthing expeditions involving him and fellow NWP scientists Gregg Tanner, who will hike into the backcountry to scout even more leks and to crouch in the pre-dawn darkness to count birds and observe their activities.
This work is typical of the kind of determination and diligence NWP scientists are bringing to Nevada’s efforts to protect its dramatically declining population of sage-grouse. If one of our sage-grouse experts isn’t scouting and recording sage-grouse leks, he’s probably meeting with a rancher to talk about a conservation easement, or poring over a government management plan or testifying in favor of a land bill that protects sage-grouse habitat.
It’s the kind of work that’s needed when a bird is threatened the way sage-grouse are.
Why a wilderness group cares about sage-grouse
The sage-grouse was once abundant in Nevada and throughout the West. It’s habitat stretched from Canada to deep within Arizona and New Mexico.But in recent decades, the bird’s numbers and habitat have declined alarmingly. Where there were once 16 million birds, there are now an estimated 200,000 to 500,000. The sage-grouse has all but disappeared from the southern reaches of its native range and is nearly gone from a huge swath of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has concluded that both the Greater Sage-grouse, found in 11 Western states and nine Nevada counties, and the Bistate Sage-grouse, a genetically distinct bird found in five Nevada counties, warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act. The bird hasn’t been formally added to the list, however, because the FWS needs to take action on other species facing more immediate extinction threats. FWS is going to re-examine the Bistate Sage-grouse’s status in September 2013 and the Greater Sage-grouse in September 2015.
That gives Nevada precious little time to show that it knows how to take care of its valuable resources.
A shrinking habitat leaves bird vulnerable
At the Nevada Wilderness Project, we’ve had sage-grouse on our list of critical conservation efforts for a number of years. Our staff scientists – Tanner, a wildlife biologist with 30 years experience in Nevada, Tull, our conservation director who holds a doctorate in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology, and Mortimore, like Tanner a former wildlife biologist with the Nevada Division of Wildlife – are some of the foremost experts on sage-grouse in the state of Nevada.
What they’ve seen is the habitats used by sage-grouse have been reduced and cut up by fire, development, overgrazing by livestock, new roads (official and unofficial), conversion to agriculture, drought and disease. More recently, large-scale energy developments – including the renewable ones that many of us want to support – have threatened the core habitat sage-grouse need.
Remember those leks Craig was scouting? Well, after the females meet the males in the morning they quickly flee the conspicuous leks to hide from coyotes, raptors, ravens and other animals who like to devour their eggs and their chicks. The females fly as far as seven miles from the lek to seek out dense grass and sagebrush cover – if they can find any.
As summer heats up, the mom leads her young chicks in search of mountain meadows or wet fields that produce the forbs and insects they need to survive. Three-week-old chicks have been known to fly with their mother 12 miles over 9,000-foot mountains to find a wet meadow. Our scientists are working to ensure those birds will be able to find a wet meadow.
What we're doing to help sage-grouse
NWP has pledged to do all it can to ensure that Nevada maintains a stable population of sage grouse on healthy, functional and intact landscapes forever. That means many things, including:
- Looking for opportunities for land management agencies to restore the large, interconnected expanses of sagebrush that the bird needs to survive. This means removing or flagging fences, protecting riparian areas and halting the destructive spread of invasive pinyon-juniper forests.
- Looking for opportunities to support such things as the Douglas County Conservation Bill, which includes permanent wilderness protection for key sage-grouse habitats in Burbank Canyons.
- Working with renewable energy developers to avoid critical sage-grouse habitat, something we accomplished when a transmission line was rerouted to avoid sage-grouse strutting ground.
- Talking with private landowners about conservation easements that help sage-grouse continue to have access to the irrigated meadows need to raise young birds.
There isn’t any other conservation group in Nevada doing this scope of work, and we’ll need your help if we’re going to be able to continue. A job this big requires the kind of deep scientific you get from working as a wildlife biologist for 30 years. It also requires time and patience. You’ve got to get up pretty early sometimes. We need to continue to review projects, advocate for conservation measures that help the sage-grouse and find ways to keep our scientists on the front lines.
Protecting sage-grouse dovetails with many of our other conservation efforts, such as conserving Nevada’s special landscapes and trying to ensure that major renewable energy projects on public lands don’t compromise crucial habitats or interfere with wilderness. If it’s good for sage-grouse, it’s probably good for Nevada’s wild landscapes.
Gregg Tanner, center, explains the Bistate Sage-grouse problems to a group of federal officials.