Emblem of the American West

By Mary Nelesen

GSGR femaleI have been interested in this iconic bird of the western sagebrush grasslands for many years but was unable to see one until last April, when my husband, Tom, and I, along with two friends, had an opportunity to view Greater Sage-Grouse on their lek outside of Dillon, MT.

Our guide, Steve Sherman, has been counting sage-grouse on their leks for the past 25 years and for the last four to six years has helped place radio tracking devices to track the grouse and monitor their habits. He has been involved in a number of sage-grouse habitat improvement and research projects and has worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 32 years. We met Steve shortly before dawn on a dark, cold and windy morning with temps barely above freezing. After driving many miles on winding gravel roads, we arrived at our destination. We were told to turn off the head lights, stay in the car and wait for the male sage-grouse to begin their display dance.

GSGR maleThe male Greater Sage-Grouse has spiky tail feathers and inflatable banana-yellow air sacs on its chest. It weighs between 2 to 3 pounds, is larger than a pheasant but smaller than a wild turkey and lives in sagebrush steppe in the American West. It is the largest native grouse species in North America.  In the 1800’s it numbered in the millions, but due to habitat destruction, its numbers have decreased dramatically over the years. It lives on some 165 million acres of sagebrush steppe habitat in 11 states in the American West, including California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, unlike some western states, about two-thirds of Montana’s sage-grouse habitat is on non-federal land, and often occurs across a mixed or “patchwork” distribution of private, state, and federal lands.

Each spring, at dawn, the sagebrush country fills with a strange burbling sound and an even stranger sight. Dozens of male sage-grouse puff their inflatable yellow air sacs and attempt to attract as many females as possible with their puffed up chest and fanned tail feathers. In preparation for a strutting display, male sage-grouse can gulp and hold a gallon of air in a pouch of their esophagus. By squeezing it out with force, they begin their display.

Although many male sage-grouse display at a lek (which are located in clear areas, on a ridge top, or grassy swale, or even a dry lake bed) only a few select males are picked by the majority of the females. We watched numerous males aggressively chase away their competition. Because of our distance from them, we were not able to observe the females mating with their chosen male, but we were able to watch females moving about on the lek.

Once mating has occurred, the female makes a nest scraped into the ground under large sagebrush and lines it with leaves, grasses, and feathers that she plucks from her breast. Females do all the nest-building, incubation and raising of the chicks. Clutch size is between 4-11 eggs with a 25-29 day incubation period.

Because sage-grouse chicks cannot digest sagebrush for their first 3 weeks after hatching, the chicks eat a wide variety of insects, especially cricket and grasshopper nymphs, butterflies, moths and their caterpillars as well as ants, bees, wasps and spiders. Females often lead their chicks to summer feeding areas in higher elevations or a wet area. Adult sage-grouse also eat insects, but they consume a greater proportion of buds, flowers and fruits, with sagebrush leaves being the mainstay of their diet.  During the winter, sage-grouse actually manage to gain weight and strength in preparation for the breeding season by feeding on the leaves of sagebrush. They get their water from snow.

The Greater Sage-grouse can live up to 9 years in the wild with an average of 3 to 6 years.  Females are more likely to live longer, due to high predation of males on leks.

The best way to see Greater Sage-grouse is to visit a lek before dawn in early spring (March to May). As Sage-grouse are very sensitive to disturbance, some leks are closed to the public. However, there are leks prepared for public viewing and may feature viewing blinds and/or guided tours. In past years, Montana Audubon has offered field trips to view sage-grouse on a lek in spring. These trips fill up quickly, so when a trip is offered be sure to sign up early.

This past September it was determined that the Greater Sage-grouse was not warranted for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Regarding that decision, Montana Audubon’s Janet Ellis stated, “The announcement is confirmation that Montana’s Sage-Grouse conservation program is on the right track.  Using a science-based approach, the state will now act to conserve sage-grouse habitat in an effort to bolster this bird’s populations across Montana.”  

According to Montana Audubon, this conservation program is critical if Montana intends to continue to manage this iconic sagebrush-dependent bird. State programs such as Montana’s, help ensure that these spectacular dancing birds will survive for many generations to come.