The latest data on greater sage grouse in Wyoming indicate an “alarming” likelihood of populations regressing to a 1996 nadir, the state’s top grouse biologist said Thursday.

The preliminary data from hunter submitted sage grouse wings during the 2021 shooting season show a ratio of 0.8 chicks per hen. That’s below what’s needed to stabilize the shrinking population, Wyoming Game and Fish sagebrush and sage grouse biologist Leslie Schreiber said Thursday.

“Zero point eight chicks per hen is associated with a declining population because 1.5 chicks per hen is needed for population stability,” Schreiber said.

The wing data suggests that another key population metric anticipated in 2022 — a count of strutting males on breeding-ground leks — also will be lower, she said.

“Wyoming sage grouse populations are heading back to mid-1990s levels, which is alarming.”

Leslie Schreiber, Game and Fish biologist

A lower count on leks in 2022 would extend the trend of declining numbers in Wyoming from five to six-years. Grouse have declined dramatically West-wide over recent decades. Game and Fish’s alarm, however, evidences a new worry.

“This is outside cyclical trends, or oscillations, as the most recent [U.S. Geological Survey] report calls them,” Schreiber said. “Ups and downs in sage grouse populations are natural and typically not cause of concern — unless they deviate significantly from the norm.”

That deviation is upon us, Schreiber said.

“Based on the data in hand, Wyoming sage grouse populations are heading back to mid 1990s levels, which is alarming,” she said. “This is particularly concerning because it does not follow the historic patterns of population cycles in the state.”

Confidence in survey

Hunters submitted 621 wings from chicks, 750 from hens and 210 from male grouse, depositing them in barrels near hunting areas, mainly in central and southwest Wyoming. “It adds up to an overall sample size of 1,581, which gives me confidence in the ratio,” Schreiber said.

The 0.8 ratio, “it’s a decrease from two previous years where reproduction ratios held at 1.1 chicks/hen,” Game and Fish said in a statement. The 2021 chick-to-hen ratio portends a lower count of males on leks in the coming spring, a count that serves as a barometer of the species’ overall population.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department Wildlife Biologist Dean Clause examines the wing of a hunter-shot greater sage grouse to determine its sex and age. The annual fall examinations help the department predict population trends. (Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

“In 2021, an average of 16.8 males per active lek, were counted in Wyoming.” Schreiber said. “Based on these numbers,” she said of the wing counts, “in 2022, Wyoming’s [average] sage grouse lek count will be lower than 16 — the lowest since 1996.”

Surveys at the 1996 nadir found an average of 13 males per occupied lek, according to Game and Fish data. The most recent high in the last 50 years came in 2006 when observers counted an average of 35.6 males per lek.

Lek counts have oscillated over the last five decades. But the count has declined without pause since 2016 when biologists counted an average of 35.6 strutting males per active lek.

Wyoming has more than 1,700 known, occupied leks, Game and Fish says. Biologists and other trained observers count grouse on some 1,000 leks a year depending on weather and other factors.

There’s no official estimate of overall sage grouse numbers in Wyoming, or established method of pinpointing that figure; lek-count trends are the principal metric determining the status of greater sage grouse populations.

Schreiber said the species should come back.

“I believe the population will rebound because that’s what it’s done in the past,” she said. “How much or why, I can’t answer.”

Gov. Mark Gordon’s executive order on sage grouse, which seeks to limit development in core grouse areas and provide other safeguards, will continue to guide management, she said.

Chicks dig bugs

Chicks depend on favorable climate and weather, among other things, to survive. “I would say drought had a hand in 2021’s low chick ratio,” Schreiber said.

“Drought alone cannot be blamed for the overall decline,” she said. “Other factors I could see contributing to the cause would be habitat loss and degradation.”

Game and Fish can’t control drought, but it does encourage and emphasize the development of water projects — such as stock tanks — and weighs in on development proposals that impact habitat, she said.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department asks hunters to deposit wings from greater sage grouse in barrels like this placed across the state. The wings help biologists determine the ratio of chicks to hens each year. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr/WyoFile)

During the first month of life, chicks eat insects and need “adequate habitat cover,” Game and Fish wrote in an outline of the bird’s development. “As the bird grows, grass and forbs — like wildflowers — become another important food source. Older birds rely almost exclusively on sagebrush….”

Debate continues regarding whether grouse populations are naturally cyclical, as the USGS stated last year. There’s also debate in the scientific literature regarding what percentage of a fall population hunters can kill before affecting it, Schreiber said.

Wyoming, which allows hunting but has restricted it considerably in recent decades, does not officially calculate the fall numbers.

Nevertheless, “we believe hunters take between 5% and 10% of the fall population,” Schreiber said.

Schreiber would not comment on whether biologists are considering any recommendations for new hunting restrictions, including a suggested permit system that would direct hunters away from some stressed areas.

“We are just in the beginning stages of that process,” she said of season-setting recommendations.

The Game and Fish Commission will set grouse seasons this spring, based on biologists’ recommendations. Game and Fish calls the newly released wing ratio information preliminary. A full analysis of the 2021 sage grouse population also is expected this spring.

Wyoming holds 38% of the world’s population of greater sage grouse which live only in the western U.S. and parts of Canada. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2015 considered protecting the species under the Endangered Species Act but found that unnecessary. It is widely believed that an ESA listing for sage grouse would be devastating to Wyoming’s economy.

The average number of male greater sage grouse counted on Wyoming breeding-ground leks fell in the spring of 2021 continuing a 5-year slide. (Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. I feel that one missing factor in sage grouse management is the denial that avain predators are a reason for sage grouse mortality. Studies have shown that 52% of chick mortality by predation is reality. This fact that sage grouse nest on the ground is a detrement to survival. Drought is another reduction factor and is part of the population swings which can be sucumvented when weather patterns are favorable for sage grouse survival.

  2. We have a paper on prescribed burning impacts an some ecosystem variables under review. Your article makes me ponder did the cold dry spring lead to fewer flowers, leading to fewer insects, leading to fewer chicks? Climate change likely influenced the dry spring and reduced vegetation, so we may see further climate change driven declines in species.

  3. I like the idea of permitted hunt areas to direct hunters away from particular challenged lek areas….or eliminate hunting altogether until we get to a better sustainable hen/chick ratio. It is a beautiful site to witness lek strutting in the spring, but I have noticed a marked reduction of birds at the leks I visit in the last 2-3 years. Thanks G&F for taking a closer look as to why.

  4. A factor a lot of biologists forget is human population.Ranchers are selling off their lands for houses, humans and their pets also affect sage grouse nesting areas. Has there been a study on that? It’s always easy to blame hunters, when it’s their license and conservation stamp purchases that contribute money for these type of studies. Human population growth into these wild areas should also be taken into consideration.

    1. Alice: Agreed. Subdividing in the rural parts of Wyoming, not necessarily in town or close to town, is a constant threat. That’s why conservation easements are so important in order to preclude any future development. The implication is that ag land is best left as ag land; and that, in many cases, ranchers and farmers are the best stewards of the private land. Reference Game and Fishes annual awards for the most outstanding land owner conservationists in Wyoming – seen in the Wyoming Wildlife publication. A very impressive group of people that are not subdividing their land and commonly 3rd to 5th generation families that are totally devoted to the land and the wildlife. In addition to conservation easements, land use planning including zoning can be used to dissuade potential subdividers. But its all dependent on preservationists becoming actively involved and generating workable solutions. However, it seems like a race to preserve as much private western land as possible before its too late – and the flood gates of people are open due to immigration and relocation from problem areas.

  5. Given all the threats that Sage-grouse face, now they are facing the additional threat from nimrods like David Neikirk who have decided that Sage-grouse are a “bucket list bird” to be hunted. Shame on you Mr. Neikirk for killing seven Sage-grouse. Wouldn’t one have been enough so that you could satisfy your quest for bagging and bragging rights hunting Sage-grouse in Wyoming.

    My earliest memories of my first hunting trip with my late father was hunting Sage-grouse in Carbon County, Wyoming. I still hunt Sage-grouse annually, but I limit my take to no more than two Sage-grouse per year. In many years I only take one bird. Many of my hunting companions who grew up hunting Sage-grouse in Wyoming have completely given up on hunting Sage-grouse due to their dramatic decline.

    I can only hope that the non-resident “bucket list” Sage-grouse hunters coming into Wyoming to kill a Sage-grouse will show more restraint in killing large numbers of Sage-grouse than Mr. Neikirk has.

  6. “Drought alone cannot be blamed for the overall decline” Schreiber said. “Other factors I could see contributing to the cause would be habitat loss and degradation.”

    Obama gave the developers a pass by not granting a listing for sage grouse via the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Clearly the developers have failed. It is past time to list sage grouse as threatened or endangered under the ESA.

  7. I liked Lee’s comments about predators here I KY we had excellent bobwhite and ruffed grouse hunting up until about the mid 90’s Guess what we shot predators trapped,crow hunted coon hunted shot skunks opossums cats and other varmints on sight now were eat up with them and no birds plus coyotes and bobcats are everywhere Go figure why there are less quail and grouse every year?

  8. I went to WY this fall for my first Sage Grouse hunt we hunted hard for 4 days and managed to shoot 7 birds they were very scattered and hard to find. Our ruffed grouse have about gone extinct I n KY and TN inthe last 15 or so years I hope things turn around before all grouse species disappear.

  9. Jeff: Interesting comments about cheat grass – certainly a concern. Other significant factors not mentioned in the article include the affect of sylvatic plage on sage grouse and other game birds including turkeys. Why? Plague kills all of the rodents in the outbreak area including rabbits, prairie dogs, mice, ground squirrels and chipmunks. Immediately after the mass die off, the predators are forced to find new primary sources of food and their diet becomes game birds, fawns and lambs. During the next phase of the cycle, the predators migrate or die off – virtually all of the raptors pack their bags and leave at this time. Then, the game birds including sage grouse, make a remarkable comeback due to the lack of predators. Imagine that, game bird populations explode when there are very few predators left. Da!! Game and Fish does not understand this effect of sylvatic plague and constantly blames the sage grouse population declines on habitat only. They also down play the affect of ravens and crows, predatory birds, on the nesting grouse. Removal of a portion of the raven and crow population, would have a positive effect on grouse populations; however, Game and Fish refuses to acknowledge that PREDATORS may have an effect on grouse numbers. Da!! Their entire program is based on habitat, habitat, habitat – we don’t want to hear the PREDATOR word, plague, cheat grass or hunting. Da!! Sage grouse hunting in Wyoming should be entirely eliminated and predator control stressed and our grouse populations will recover. However, its politically correct to blame grouse declines on grazing and oil/gas activity. Are you aware that a 1990s Game and Fish sage grouse plan stated that 95% of the sage grouse habitat in Wyoming is still intact?? Since, then they have carefully avoided referencing this statistic since it doesn’t support their habitat beliefs. No other state comes close to our percent of intact grouse habitat; but still, Game and Fish hangs on to their habitat and habitat only philosophy. Da!! And of course, everyone knows that cattle routinely stomp sage grouse and their nests even though nest observations reveal crows, ravens, skunks, raccoons, and raptors are the main culprits. Da!! Change is not possible at Game and Fish because you have over 200 wildlife biologists thinking like 200 wildlife biologists – all schooled and indoctrinated to think the same -sorry, no deviations from current beliefs allowed. So its still habitat, habitat, habitat and the yearly grouse hunting season goes on, and crows and ravens continue to decimate the nests, and plague increasingly affects their numbers, and cheat grass too. But sorry, we can’t publicly acknowledge these effects. Why don’t you believe us when we say its all due to habitat and them damn cows. Da!!!

    1. Lee, I am assuming you are the same Lee Campbell that was once on the BHBLWG, if so you might want to look at the results of the raven study we just funded as well as the coyote/predator study we funded a few years back. The results from those two studies might make you reassess some of your positions.

      1. Chris: Wyoming’s 0.8 chicks per hen ratio is unbelievably low. What happened to the other chicks??? Something happened to them and its more than likely predation. Please read the following article ” the effects of raven removal on the sage grouse nest success ” at escholarship.com. Raven removal achieved a very impressive 74% success rate – twice of the normal success rate is. What I didn’t state in my previous comments was that further studies in other areas found that coyotes, red fox and badgers were also responsible for nest failure and depredation on chicks. It isn’t just ravens, sage grouse are preyed upon by all predators including raptors of course – that’s why our 0.8 chick ratio is dismal. When the predators were reduced due to sylvatic plague on Lance Creek I observed hens with 5-7 chicks surviving – that’s more like it – there was virtually no predation loss of chicks. All sorts of red flags should be going up over a 0.8 ratio. If anything is benefiting the sage grouse in Wyoming its the removal of coyotes by the local predator boards and aerial hunting of coyotes by the USDA. The articles I read on sage grouse nest success indicated that the predator most responsible for nest failure varied from area to area – in some areas it was ravens – and in other areas it was red fox. The problem with ravens is that the articles estimated there has been a 400% increase in raven populations primarily due to effects of man including dumps, feedlots, road kill, etc. Doesn’t a 0.8 chick ratio indicate that the eggs were predated on in the nest ( nest failure ) or the chicks were predated upon after hatching – where else could they have gone??? Either way, its predation although disease can’t be ruled out. What happened to the chicks????

  10. Interesting article. I hope that WyoFile will continue to monitor decisions by the Commission. It sounds like hunting should be cut on number of licenses.

  11. I worked for environmental groups in the 1970s. I negotiated access agreements for oil and gas operators, mainly in the Powder River Basin, for 18 years. I frequently drove through ranches which had BLM, state and fee land fenced together in common pastures. I owned a ranch in prime sage grouse country for four years and improved habitat, at no small expense. I have searched for leks in many places during breeding season. What I know from these experiences: The best thing for sage grouse is cover. One of the biggest destructive forces which damages cover on a landscape scale is livestock overgrazing. Adding other (e.g. industrial) stressors to loss of cover simply makes things worse. In Montana, the BLM requires ranchers to reduce grazing pressure on BLM lands within mixed pastures. In Wyoming, my efforts to ask the BLM to do the same thing were rebuffed, claiming that the BLM cannot regulate private land. This argument is absurd on its face. Permits can be conditioned upon proper grazing management.

    1. RT: During the brood rearing season, sage grouse hens and their checks commonly migrate to irrigate bottom land, usually alfalfa where they find forbs, cover and water in abundance. Some hens migrate 5-40 miles to find the perfect conditions for raising their chicks. Without this oasis in the desert, our sage grouse numbers would be miserable and we would we listed. Give credit where credit is due, to the positive effect which farmers and ranchers that irrigate have on sage grouse populations. All possible because of our water improvements such as dams, irrigation districts and irrigation infra structure such as ditches and head gates. Thousands of antelope and deer also dine at the finest restaurant on the range.

  12. Wildfire, cheatgrass and other weeds taking over the rangelands was not mentioned in this article. Wyoming and the west have seen very large grass and brush wildfires in the last decade. Post fire management on private, state and BLM lands has been marginal. That, along with the use of ORVs and the lack of understanding of what causes weed spread by wildland users has caused an explosion of weeds in Wyoming and the west. It is difficult to find rangelands that don’t have a few cheatgrass plants and there are vast landscape covered with nearly 100% cheatgrass, annual wheatgrass, kochia and halogeton. Much more effort by the state and federal agencies, as well as landowners, must be implemented to control these weeds.

    1. Agreed. My only concern is the use of toxic herbicides to control the invasive plants. Us Vietnam vets know full well what spraying of agent orange does to an eco system and humans. So that leaves us with goats as a non-toxic alternative. I prefer goats to poisoning of the federal range land by spraying – and yes, I spent 2 summers spraying with 2,4 D for the County when I was young an unaware of the consequences. Since then, I have home detoxed.

  13. I well recall, when I was young, seeing hundreds of Sage Hens when hunting got underway. I haven’t seen half that amount in the years since. In fact, when I go out now, I generally see few if any. A remarkable decline in a short amount of time. Not sure what’s up, but if it doesn’t change, another 35 years could see Sage Grouse following the Dinosaur into extinction. An idea folks would have laughed at when I first started hunting way back when.