Sage-grouse are the charismatic ambassador for the Sagebrush Sea, a little known but critically important western landscape that supports hundreds of fish and wildlife species. A classic umbrella species, sage-grouse need large expanses of healthy sagebrush grasslands and functioning riparian systems to survive and flourish. Conserving sage-grouse will benefit a host of other species in the Sagebrush Sea, including pronghorn, elk, mule deer, golden eagle, native trout, and nearly 200 migratory and resident bird species.
There are two species of sage-grouse: greater sage-grouse and the smaller, genetically distinct Gunnison sage-grouse.
While sage-grouse will feed on wildflowers, insects and forage crops in spring and summer, they depend on sagebrush for food year round, and especially in winter when sagebrush is the only available food source.
Population and Range
Greater sage-grouse are a widely distributed but sparsely populated species. The total population is estimated at 200,000-400,000 birds scattered across Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado, with remnant populations in Washington, California, North Dakota, South Dakota, Alberta and Saskatchewan. The species was extirpated in Nebraska and Arizona.
Gunnison sage-grouse have been reduced to just 5,000 birds. Most of them occur in the Gunnison Basin in Colorado, with the remainder found in six small outlying populations in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah.
Sage-grouse are renowned for their flamboyant mating display. Every spring the birds return to ancestral mating grounds known as “leks.” Males engage in an elaborate dance to attract females. Fanning their tail feathers and puffing out their chests, the strutting birds simultaneously flutter their wings, toss long, thick plumes at the napes of their necks above their heads, and emit a sequence of popping gurgling sounds from yellow air sacs on their breasts.
Females nest on their own, typically under sagebrush screened by tall grasses within four miles of the lek where they mated. A typical clutch is 6-10 eggs. Chick survival is reduced by poor habitat quality and is one of the limiting factors in sage-grouse population growth.
Sage-grouse were once prolific in the West. Native Americans celebrated the species, and explorers, settlers, and government surveyors reported seeing huge flocks of the birds. Tatiana Gettelman/Flickr