Photograph by Joel Sartore, Nat Geo Image Collection
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A male greater sage-grouse puffs its chest to attract a mate in Pinedale, Wyoming.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, Nat Geo Image Collection

How An Iconic Western Bird Is Stepping Back From the Brink

After a long and controversial wait, the U.S. government decided not to place the greater sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act.


The greater sage grouse, the charismatic North American bird that has dwindled rapidly in recent decades, doesn't need protection under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. government announced Tuesday.

The decision is thanks to the work of 11 western states in protecting private and public land for the bird—what U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell calls "the largest land conservation effort in U.S history."

"It's a huge #WildlifeWin," Jewell tweeted Tuesday morning. (Also see "Can Sage-Grouse Be Saved Without Shutting Down the West?")

In a video announcing the decision, Jewell said, "This has been an extraordinary effort on a scale we've never seen before."

Though the species isn't out of the woods yet, the decision is a testament to how organizations, individuals, and the government can work together to save a species.

Several wildlife and research groups applauded the move.

"This decision illustrates what the Endangered Species Act is supposed to be all about: galvanizing collaborative efforts to save wildlife species before they’re on the brink of extinction," Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said in a statement.

Four things to know about this denizen of the Western sagebrush:

Why it's in trouble.

The greater sage-grouse is in decline across its entire range, which covers 165 million acres in 11 western states and two Canadian provinces. Once numbering in the millions, the bird has lost nearly half its sagebrush habitat to development—to farms and ranches, to oil and gas operations, to spreading cities, and lately to wind farms. Fire and invasive plants have also taken a toll.

Just between 2007 and 2013, the bird’s numbers plummeted by more than half, according to a study released this year by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The study found there are now fewer than 50,000 male sage-grouse engaged in the strutting, chest-puffing, tail-fanning courtship behavior that makes the two-foot-tall birds so charismatic.

However, in August, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies reported more encouraging numbers for greater sage-grouse: The number of male birds documented in 2015  increased 63 percent from a recent low in 2013—a major rebound, the agency said.

Sage-grouse need the open range to survive.

Greater sage-grouse range
Circa 2000

Sage-grouse require vast tracts of undisturbed sagebrush. It provides their only food in winter and shelter for their nests in spring. It surrounds their ancestral breeding grounds—the great clearings, called leks, to which they return in late winter.

Migrating seasonally between different parts of their range, the birds have been known to cover distances of up to 100 miles (160 kilometers)—if roads or fences don’t block their path. They tend to avoid all signs of human presence.

They have very cool courtship rituals.

Each spring, sage-grouse return to leks, their communal mating grounds. The males begin to dance, fanning their spiky tails out like peacocks and puffing out their white chest feathers.

As they dance, the males also inflate and deflate their twin bright yellow throat sacs,  making strange popping sounds like the uncorking of champagne bottles, according to the Sage Grouse Initiative.

Sage-Grouse Unique Mating Display Explained

Sometimes two males battle each other with their wings.

The females watch the show from the nearby sagebrush, as they will for several mornings before they choose a mate—usually a dominant male.

People are working hard to save them.

Since 2010, the threat of an endangered species listing has galvanized efforts to conserve the sagebrush steppe, bringing together federal and state agencies, private landowners and industry leaders, and conservation groups.  Western governors have argued that it is up to the states to determine how to protect the birds. Wyoming, which has nearly 39 percent of the entire sage-grouse population, was the first to adopt a conservation plan that protects “core areas” of habitat. Other states have followed.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the largest land manager in the West, is also devising regional plans, covering a total of 50 million acres, that will place some limits on human activities. Meanwhile the U.S. Department of Agriculture has invested nearly $425 million in a Sage-Grouse Initiative.

The money has funded conservation easements covering 380,000 acres on some 1,100 ranches, along with other projects such as the removal of invasive conifers.

Odd Birds Take a Road Trip to Survive

“The number of people that are thinking about sage-grouse today is just incredible compared to five years ago,” Dave Naugle, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Montana in Missoula and the scientific advisor to the USDA initiative, said in a previous interview.

The efforts on behalf of the sage-grouse, he adds, are helping preserve an ecosystem that supports 350 other species, including golden eagles, mule deer, elk, pronghorn antelope, and pygmy rabbits.