WANTED! Volunteers to travel by vehicle and foot to extremely remote areas of Eastern Oregon. Volunteers will camp in cold conditions, wake up before dawn and use GPS units to navigate to sage grouse leks to count males and females present. No previous experience required. Why would anyone want to do this? My husband and I actually jumped at the first chance to do this for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. We love the high mountain deserts and wildlife, and finally had an actual purpose to explore those little-traveled dirt roads and sagebrush meadows that stretch for miles.
For those of you that aren’t familiar with the greater sage grouse, it’s a large, rounded-winged, ground-dwelling bird, up to 30 inches long and two feet tall, weighing from two to seven pounds. It has a long, pointed tail with legs feathered to the base of the toes. Females are a mottled brown, black, and white. Males are bigger and have a large white ruff around their neck and bright yellow air sacks on their breasts, which they inflate during their mating display. The birds are found at elevations ranging from 4,000 to over 9,000 feet and are highly dependent on sagebrush for cover and food.
Sage grouse once roamed much of the West, but populations have been declining for decades and now the birds only occupy about half of their historic range. Development, livestock grazing, fire, weeds and the West Nile virus have taken a steady toll, causing grouse numbers to fall about 3.5 percent a year. The greater sage grouse count happens in early spring during mating season. Collecting data at the leks is to document population trends. A large proportion of this data collection work is done entirely by volunteers.
We received our assignments, paperwork, and GPS coordinates of the leks we would be counting. We packed up our four-wheel-drive truck and headed west from Boise into Oregon and off the main road. 30 miles of rough and hilly dirt roads later we found the first lek we would be counting in the morning. “Leks” are locations where groups of male sage-grouse return year after year to strut their stuff in the hopes of attracting a mate. To the human eye the lek sites really don’t look all that different from the surrounding sagebrush. After seeing a some old sage grouse dropping and feathers on the lek, I didn’t have very high expectations of seeing any birds in the morning.
About a mile from the lek, shielded from it by a small ridge, we found a flat piece of ground to set up our tent and camp. We had our dog with us and wanted to be a good distance away from the lek so as not to disturb the grouse. Our beautiful spot was so remote that if our truck broke down it would be days before someone found us. This spring has been very cold in Eastern Oregon. It dropped to 20 degrees at night. I didn’t sleep well from being cold and being nervous about correctly following the procedure to count since we took this volunteer assignment very seriously.
The next morning we arrived at the lek at 6:15 am. It was just getting light as the sun was starting to rise behind the lek in the east. I put my binoculars up to my eyes. I couldn’t believe it: there they were. It was better than Christmas morning! We watched the grouse from the truck for about a half hour before heading out on foot leaving our bird dog secure in the truck. We hiked closer to the lek and kneeled on frozen ground and out of sight from the sage grouse for another hour to get a better view and take some video. We couldn’t get close enough for our video camera to capture the sound of the sage grouse so we added some sound and narration to our actual footage. We ended up counting 18 males and 2 females on this lek, and located a neighboring “satellite” lek with another 8 males.
Sage grouse are an indicator species. Hundreds of animals rely on the same air, land and water as this bird. If sage grouse are in decline, it means other wildlife, and the lives and livelihoods that depend on them, are at risk. By protecting them and the sagebrush habitat that is their home, hundreds of species might be sustained. Currently there are over 20 sensitive or threatened species associated with sagebrush, including Oregon’s state bird, the Western Meadowlark.
Good news: In early March 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the greater sage grouse is warranted for protection under the Endangered Species Act and will be placed on a candidate list, but will not yet be protected under the ESA. It’s encouraging to see the Obama administration take steps to restore the greater sage grouse, but the bird still needs much greater protection in order to fully recover. We have no idea if this count is up or down from previous years but we hope our counting will contribute to preservation of this incredible bird.