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Common Questions About Sage-Grouse

Why do sage-grouse need attention?

Once found in 13 western states and three Canadian provinces, sage-grouse are found today in 11 states and in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. The bird's remaining strongholds are in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, and Oregon. Only about half the suitable habitat once present in the historical range of sage-grouse is still intact, and much of that has been degraded. Concerned about the status of sagebrush habitat and sage-grouse on western rangelands, several parties have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

While the loss of sagebrush habitat in quality and quantity is not as severe in Montana as elsewhere, the loss is significant enough, at least in parts of the state, to influence sage-grouse numbers and population trends. Efforts made today to keep the bird from being listed would be a far better solution then dealing with the alternative.

Do sage-grouse really need sagebrush?

Sage-grouse are members of the order Galliforms or “gallinaceous birds” meaning “chickenlike” birds. They constitute a rather generalized group of ground dwelling birds that scratch and peck for food, being largely ground nesters. Familiar birds in this order are grouse, turkey, pheasant, and partridge. Most have a well-developed avian gizzard that is analogous to mammalian molars that are used to break down food. Close relatives to the sage-grouse turkey, pheasant, and other species of grouse have strong muscular gizzards adapted to grind and digest tough foods like grain and seeds that have hard external seed coats. Gizzards can be lined with grit and stone used to assist in grinding these foods in preparation to digestion.

This is where sage-grouse depart their own kin, you may recall your high school science teacher or college professor making a statement such as; “this theory is true with the exception of”; sage-grouse is the exception among grouse. Unlike its relatives, sage-grouse have a thin-walled, non-muscular gizzard that reflects its dietary dependence on soft sagebrush leaves. Studies in Montana have documented sagebrush making-up 99% of the diet of sage-grouse during critical winter periods.

The dependence on sagebrush is very apparent and understandable when considering sage-grouse habitat, open sagebrush flats where winter snow fall accumulations in some years can cover all ground vegetation, leaving only the tallest sagebrush plants accessible above the snow for sage-grouse to feed on and to find protective cover.

Sagebrush provides many other important needs of sage-grouse beyond food, such as nesting cover, escape, and brood cover.

If you were to list the three most important concerns for sage-grouse range wide what would they be?

Grouse researcher, Clait Braun, grouped the threats to sage-grouse range wide into 3 main categories of habitat loss.

  • Habitat Loss from agriculture, mineral and energy development and the appearance of towns, ranches, roads, and reservoirs.
  • Fragmentation caused by fences, power lines and sagebrush removal treatments (mechanical, chemical, and fire).
  • Degradation resulting from detrimental grazing, exotic plants, hunting predation and drought.
I see lots of sagebrush; I can’t understand how sage-grouse can be in trouble?

You may see what appears to be extensive sagebrush stands, however, range wide it has been reduced 50% from historic levels. Also, the sagebrush you see may have been compromised, degradation or fragmented. Compromised meaning the most productive sagebrush and flat lying sites were converted early on leaving less productive droughty sites. The degradation of the sagebrush community type may also not be obvious; however, native sagebrush understory plants may have been replaced with less useful (non-native) exotics plants. Additionally, not readily apparent human activities that fragment the habitat such as fences, power lines roads and recreational activities can also be detrimental to sage-grouse habitats too.

Can livestock grazing and sage-grouse co-exist?

Absolutely, however good range management is essential for both livestock and sage- grouse. Proper rangeland management promotes healthy vegetation and a diversity of native shrubs, grasses and forbs important for both livestock and sage-grouse.

What is the Montana Sage-Grouse Management Plan?

The State of Montana 2005 sage-grouse Plan is the result of more than two years of research and deliberation by the Montana Sage-Grouse Work Groups, which included livestock producers, sportsmen, biologists, and many other interested parties. The work group adopted this goal for the plan: To provide for the long-term conservation and enhancement of the sagebrush steppe/mixed-grass prairie complex within Montana in a manner that supports sage-grouse and a healthy diversity and abundance of wildlife species and human uses.

The plan describes the status of, and the threats to, Montana's sage-grouse population and sagebrush habitat, and it provides a framework for establishing voluntary working groups around the state to carry out the plan on a local basis. It offers a toolbox of information and conservation approaches, designed for tailoring to community conditions and concerns. The entire plan is available on the Sage-Grouse Management page of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Web site.

Who was involved in preparing the state management plan?

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) coordinated the process. Participants included Montana Stockgrowers Association and individual livestock producers, Southwest Stockgrowers, Montana Petroleum Association, Northwest Energy, Fort Belknap Tribes, North American Grouse Partnership, Montana Falconers Association, Montana State University, Montana Wildlife Federation, National Wildlife Federation, Gallatin Wildlife Association, Montana Audubon, Montana Department of Agriculture, Montana DNRC, USDA Forest Service, Custer National Forest, Natural Resources Conservation Service, USDI Fish and Wildlife Service, USDI Bureau of Land Management, and interested individuals.

What are Sage-Grouse Local Working Groups?

These are groups of local people who volunteer to work on activities to benefit sage-grouse and sagebrush habitat, using the information and conservation approaches provided in the state plan. Three currently active groups are established for the areas surrounding Dillon, Miles City, and Glasgow. These areas have unique challenges for sage-grouse Dillon; sagebrush habitat is undergoing significant effects from the subdivision and development of land. Around Miles City, coal bed methane development is likely to have an impact on sage-grouse and sagebrush habitat. Sage-grouse populations around Glasgow are comparatively healthy, and the working group will focus on maintaining this status.

Local working groups will follow these guiding principles:

  1. Conservation actions implemented for sage-grouse will contribute to the overall health of sagebrush communities across the landscape.
  2. Conservation strategies will integrate local, regional, and national needs for conservation planning.
  3. Wildlife professionals, land managers, private landowners, and all others who have a stake in sagebrush communities will be tolerant, understanding, and respectful of other perspectives and focus on areas of common interest.
  4. This plan is not intended to exclude any uses or activities or infringe on legally defined private property rights; rather, it serves to provide solutions to problems and address issues that negatively affect sage-grouse and degrade sagebrush community health.

More information on Sage-Grouse Local Working Groups is available on the Sage-Grouse Management page of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Web site.

How will this effort affect land use?

The working groups will propose activities and projects based on the status and needs of local sage-grouse populations and sagebrush habitat. Participation by landowners in a working group or in any activity or project is entirely voluntary. Local groups will work cooperatively with federal and state agencies and will have the opportunity to recommend actions that could be taken on public lands. The working groups have no authority over private land, state or federal land or land management agencies, or non-governmental organizations.

Who is providing the leadership for each Sage-Grouse Local Working Group?

The Local Sage-Grouse Working Groups includes representatives from some of the organizations named above along with private landowners. Each sage-grouse local work group is co-chaired, typically with one agency person and a private landowner.