Greater Sage Grouse
Scientific Name: Centrocercus urophasianus
Range: Presently occur in parts of Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Utah, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, North Dakota and South Dakota, and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The species is extirpated from Nebraska, Arizona and British Columbia.
Conservation Status: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined greater sage-grouse was “warranted, but precluded” for protection under the Endangered Species Act in March 2010. Both the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service list the sage-grouse as a “sensitive species” range-wide.
Remaining Population: Estimated as low as 142,000. Range-wide abundance has decreased between 69-99 percent from historic levels.
Threat: Habitat loss and fragmentation from energy development, livestock grazing, agricultural conversion, invasive species, wildfire, urbanization, fences, pipelines and utility corridors.
First described by Lewis and Clark in 1805, nineteenth century travelers and settlers reported huge flocks of sage-grouse that darkened the sky as they lifted from valley floors. Today, this charismatic icon of the Sagebrush Sea is sparsely distributed across just half of their historic range.
The sage-grouse is a large, rounded-winged, spike-tailed, ground-dwelling bird, about two feet tall and weighing from two to seven pounds. Females are a mottled brown, black and white. Males are larger and have a large white ruff around their neck and bright yellow air sacks on their chest, which they inflate during their elaborate spring mating displays conducted on breeding areas known as leks. The birds are found at elevations ranging to 9,000 feet and are highly dependent on sagebrush for nesting, cover and feed.
Sagebrush steppe is home to a surprising abundance of flora and fauna that depend on this complex, fragile ecosystem. Sage-grouse are an indicator species for sagebrush habitats. Their continued decline is indication of human mismanagement of the landscape.
Threats From Fossil Fuel Development
Greater sage-grouse are adversely affected by energy development and infrastructure, even when mitigative measures are implemented. The species is affected by direct habitat loss, fragmentation of important seasonal habitats by roads, pipelines and power lines, and human and vehicle-related disturbance. The impacts of energy development often add to the effects of other land uses and development, resulting in marked declines in local sage-grouse populations. For example, 12 years of coalbed methane gas development in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming has coincided with a 79 percent decline in the greater sage-grouse population. In the Jonah and Pinedale Anticline gas fields of western Wyoming, a scientific study in 2005 predicted extirpation of sage-grouse within 19 years if habitat conditions remained constant. Instead drilling has intensified, threatening sage-grouse in the region. Well densities greater than one wellpad per square mile, drilling activity within three miles of leks, as well as the placement of producing gas wells within two miles of leks have all been linked to declines in breeding populations. Negative impacts have been shown to extend as far as four miles from energy development in the Powder River Basin. Population declines associated with energy development results from abandonment of leks (courtship sites), decreased attendance at the leks that persist, reduced nest initiation, poor nest success and chick survival, decreased yearling survival, displacement of sage-grouse (especially yearlings) to habitats beyond the edges of gas fields, and avoidance of energy infrastructure in important wintering habitat.
It is predicted that continued energy exploration and development will increase over the next 20 years. Greater sage-grouse populations are predicted to decline 7 to 19 percent from the effects of oil and gas development in the eastern part of the range, continuing historic population declines range-wide.