Sage Grouse: An Indicator Species in Peril
As one of the American west’s most iconic species, Greater Sage Grouse were once estimated to number as high as 16 million birds. However, as a result of habitat fragmentation, loss of habitat to urban encroachment, oil and gas development, mining, overgrazing, wildfires, conversion of rangeland to agriculture, invasive species and drought the current population is estimated at a half million to 200,000 Greater Sage Grouse remaining. The sage-grouse is the canary in the coal mine because sagebrush lands are home to more than 350 plants and animals. Sage grouse are an important indicator species for western ecosystems and as the sage grouse goes, so go mule deer, elk and pronghorn antelope that live on the same habitat. Much of this wild habitat has already been cut up, paved over, converted to crops, drilled, mined and is being degraded by wildfire and invasive species.
The Sacred Song and Dance of the Sage Grouse
Sage Grouse: A Steady Decline
In the U.S., historically, sagebrush stretched across 153 million acres of the American west thriving in the arid deserts, through dry hot summers and cold winters. Today, only 106 million acres of sagebrush habitat remain in the U.S. Known as the sagebrush steppe, sage grouse depend on this habitat for shelter from weather and predators as well as a food source. Beyond sage grouse, the sagebrush steppe, is home to a wide variety of wildlife including elk, antelope, mule deer, golden eagles, ferruginous hawks, and various reptiles and amphibians.
Greater sage grouse numbers have decreased an estimated 30 percent since 1985. The bird’s current range is across 11 Western states and two Canadian provinces. The bird’s habitat consists of 53 percent federally managed land, or 92.2 million acres; 38 percent private land, or 66.2 million acres; 5 percent state land, or 8.9 million acres; and 3 percent tribal, or 5 million acres. Wyoming has the most sage-grouse with roughly 37 percent of the bird’s total population. Montana is next with 18 percent followed by Nevada and Idaho with 14 percent each.
Attacks on Sage Grouse Protections and Plans
Over this past year, protections for Sage Grouse and their habitat have been under heavy attack in congress and by the administration. In 2018, the U.S. House passed a version of the National Defense Authorization Act that would bar listing greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act for the next 10 years; this provision would allow for unbridled development and spell doom for the Greater Sage Grouse and many other species. Fortunately, the U.S. Senate rejected these provisions and ultimately congress passed a bill that maintained sage grouse protections. Following this, the Bureau of Land Management sought to undue collaborative plans reached by western states, local agencies, private landowners, sportsmen and women, responsible energy developers and various community leaders to conserve the sagebrush steppe for wildlife and sustainable growth in the west. Through thoughtful land management and proactive steps to conserve sage grouse populations these plans sought to protect sage grouse from being endangered.
Earth Keepers is asking spiritual leaders to raise awareness about the importance of sage grouse and their habitat by discussing these issues with their communities and highlighting the need for responsible stewardship of wildlife and God’s creation. Earth Keepers will assist spiritual leaders and communities interested in submitting public comments to federal and state agencies as well as writing articles for the press. Additionally, Earth Keepers will be partnering with various conservation organizations to lead an on the ground field trip for spiritual leaders to visit a sage grouse lek to watch the sacred dances.