A male sage grouse struts on a lek. (Leine Stikkel)

Wyoming’s spring 2022 count of strutting male greater sage grouse revealed a 6% increase over 2021, bucking expectations of a continuing decline predicted last fall.

An average of 17.9 male grouse per active lek — about one more per breeding-ground lek than what was counted last year — reveals a population that is “holding steady or stabilizing,” said Nyssa Whitford, Wyoming Game and Fish’s sagebrush and sage grouse biologist.

The uptick can be attributed to the good condition of habitat, Whitford said.

“We went into our lek season with the best habitat available across most of the state.”

Nyssa Whitford, Wyoming Game and Fish Department sagebrush and sage grouse biologist

“The stars aligned,” she said. “We got good moisture when we needed it, our winter wasn’t too harsh.

“We went into our lek season with the best habitat available across most of the state,” Whitford said. “It really shows how much of an important role habitat plays in the life of sage grouse.”

Last fall a collection of hunter-harvested grouse wings showed a 0.8 chick/hen ratio presaging a sixth consecutive year of declines in lek counts this spring. A wing-count ratio of 1.5 chicks per hen is necessary to keep a population stable, biologists believe. The annual lek survey is the best estimator of the overall population, biologists believe.

There is nothing suspect about last fall’s wing counts, Whitford said. But those numbers, which are still important to wildlife managers, are not collected with scientific rigor.

“It is extremely useful,” she said of the wing collections. But, because the ratio is derived from a voluntary hunters’ program that collects samples unevenly across the state, the wing ratio “can’t stand on its own,” Whitford said.

“There are a lot of other factors [that determine] where the population ends up,” she said. “This spring is a great example of that.”

Long-term worries

Federal and state personnel, consultants and volunteers counted more than 16,740 strutting grouse on 87% of known, occupied leks this spring. The number of active leks remained steady, Game and Fish reported.

Agency biologists say grouse populations rise and fall in cycles of about six to eight years. “[W]e were pleased to see a slight increase this year and anticipate seeing more in the years to come,” Whitford said in a statement.

Twenty-six years of lek counts compiled by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. (Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

Lek counts in Wyoming had been on a five-year slide until this spring. A graph of the counts made over several decades show peaks and valleys indicating a cyclical population pattern.

In 1996 the number was 12.5, a nadir, according to Game and Fish Department data. But conservationists point to a longer-term diminishment as a continuing worry.

A federal report published last year estimated an 81% decline in the species — which live only in Western North America — over the last 53 years. Wyoming holds an estimated 38% of the world’s greater sage grouse population and habitat.

In last year’s U.S. Geological Survey report, Western Wyoming emerged as a stronghold for the imperiled bird. Nevertheless, the prospect that its West-wide decline might lead to protection under the Endangered Species Act generates worries about land-use restrictions that could curtail industrial development, agricultural use and recreation on federal lands.

Wyoming still allows hunters to shoot sage grouse. The state in recent decades has radically changed its hunting seasons to protect grouse, starting the season later, limiting the number of birds that can be shot in a day, limiting the number of birds a hunter can possess and closing some areas.

Wyoming’s hunting season begins in some parts of the state Sept. 17 and ends Sept. 19 in the northeast and on Sept. 30 in the main portion of the state. Game and Fish asks hunters to drop a wing from each harvested bird into strategically placed barrels.

This year the agency will survey sage grouse hunters specifically, a new undertaking that will occur soon after the hunting season ends.

“Specifically surveying sage grouse hunters will give the department more direct and timely information to inform management decisions,” Jason Carlisle, a Game and Fish biologist, said in a statement. Sage grouse hunters can expect surveys shortly after the hunting season concludes.

A gubernatorial executive order limiting development in sagebrush country seeks to keep habitat intact. The governor’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team administers that order, separate from, but associated with, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

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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