BLM employees count grouse on a Wyoming lek in 2015. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

Wyoming’s 2021 count of male greater sage grouse declined 13% compared to 2020, extending the downward trend of the troubled bird’s key population indicator to five years.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department released the spring count of males on breeding-ground leks Wednesday, revealing an average of 16.9 male grouse. The count is the lowest since 2013 when a phalanx of trained observers tallied an average of 16.8 males. In 1996 the number was 12.5, a nadir, according to Game and Fish Department data.

“The decline in lek attendance was expected for 2021 due to the sage grouse’s cyclical population trend and added drought conditions observed in Wyoming,” Game and Fish Department said in a statement.

Why it matters

Wyoming is a stronghold for greater sage grouse in the West, holding an estimated 38% of the world’s population. The ground-dwelling, chicken-sized bird lives only in 11 states and two Canadian provinces.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2015 decided that protecting the greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act was “not warranted” based on conservation plans adopted by federal and state agencies across the West. Wyoming lek counts in 2021 are 54% of what they were in 2015.

Should state plans prove inadequate to reversing the trend, an ESA listing could result. Associated federal restrictions, business and political leaders fear, would inhibit commercial activity in grouse habitat — much of the state —  and be disproportionately detrimental to the Wyoming economy.

History

Wyoming has tracked grouse numbers for nearly 60 years and has seen the population rise and fall in a cyclical manner. Although some biologists dispute that concept,Game and Fish sagebrush and sage grouse biologist Leslie Schreiber said the recurrence happens regularly every six to eight years.

The population in the state hit an all-time low in the early 1990s, Game and Fish said, “following an extended drought and loss of habitat.”

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)

Wyoming has greatly altered its hunting seasons to protect greater sage 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.

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

Hunting begins in some areas Sept. 18. Closing dates vary.

Game and Fish saw the dip coming, Schreiber said in a statement.

“When considering the sage grouse’s population cycle, we look at the number of chicks per hen,” she said, drawing that data from hunter-submitted wings from birds they kill each fall. 

“Game and Fish estimated an average of 1.1 chicks per hen in 2020,” she said in a statement. “[F]or the population to grow, the average needs to be closer to 1.5 chicks per hen.”

Causes

Because of drought, “habitat projects that keep water on the landscape will be a priority in the coming years,” Schreiber said in her statement. “Sage grouse cannot thrive if the sagebrush habitat is fragmented and in poor condition which is why Wyoming engages in significant efforts to conserve sage grouse and build resiliency in the ecosystem.”

Weather and climate — impacting food and cover — are factors weighing on greater sage grouse survival and thought to be contributing to the rise and fall of grouse numbers. The actual cause, however, “is not understood,” the Game and Fish Department said.

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All told, observers tallied more than 15,800 strutting males in 2021.

Some biologists believe there are twice as many hens as cocks on the leks each spring. One researcher recently recommended that Wyoming adopt a permit system for hunting grouse to better track numbers.

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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8 Comments

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  1. Goggle search: SAGE GROUSE RAVEN PREDATION

    It appears that ravens account for about 53% of the sage grouse nest failures. Some raven control has been tried in Wyoming but the research is far from conclusive and complete. Previously, ravens were protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act but it appears raven control is now possible. Interesting reading, give it a try. Lee

  2. I don’t understand why the sage grouse are declining so badly. I do know that no one else understands either. Based on my own experience, I know they are declining. I grew up on a ranch south of Encampment Wyoming. When I was a small child, in the 1960’s, many people, including my father, planted wheat. Sage brush was not as widespread as it is now. If wheat was not planted, folks had plenty of cows. The only change to the environment caused by man in our area is that there is more sagebrush now than there was then. In spite of that, there are fewer sage grouse every year. It is not accurate to say they are declining due to energy development or encroaching civilization, or more cows. We used to hunt them. I don’t think anyone hunts them in our area anymore. Having “convenient” and “go to” knee jerk reactions to the problem won’t help the sage grouse and we do need to help them.

  3. GROUSE MANAGEMENT BY RANCHERS:

    Many of the readers probably do not know how ranchers manage grouse populations on their private land. I remember ranchers in NW South Dakota – in a 3-5 county area – completely shutting down grouse hunting since they felt the grouse numbers were too low and needed to recover. The State game department sold the hunting licenses but the ranchers denied access to private land. Ranchers are the most observant people I know and their closeness to the land gives them an insight into wildlife populations which no one else has. These same ranchers commonly cancel deer and antelope season if the fire danger is too high. Again, all the normal preparations including license sales are made for antelope and deer season, but if conditions aren’t right they put out an announcement on local radio and TV that the season is being cancelled due to fire danger.

    I estimate that about 30% of the private landowners in Wyoming do not allow grouse hunting when the populations are down – just a guess but I know these people. So Game and Fish can go ahead and schedule a grouse hunting season but that doesn’t mean you can hunt on private land. Please note that ranchers have no control over Federal land they may be leasing for grazing – the public has open access so long as they stay on the 2 track roads.

    Likewise, most ranchers manage their deer and antelope herds very closely. Some only allow harvesting trophy bucks; that is they manage for the older and larger bucks due to hunter demand. On the other hand, I know ranchers whose hay fields are overwhelmed by deer who actually invite the local town people to come out and thin them down. So, ranchers are very, very involved in managing wildlife populations and they will not hesitate to protect their grouse populations when the numbers are low. I just wish the same level of caring extended to the Federal lands in Wyoming.

  4. Jim: Wyoming has one huge advantage over the surrounding states when it comes to sage grouse habitat – and that is the large tracts of Federal land which can’t be subdivided for residential and agricultural purposes. That doesn’t mean the habitat is secure – the shear size of the oil and gas developments that are being proposed surely are a concern. Example, the 1.2 million acre project north of Douglas which was recently approved via EIS, the Jonah field on the upper Green River, the 300,000 acre Moneta field, etc. The situation is much worse in our neighboring states which is why we have something like 85% of the grouse. I read a quote in one of the recovery plans which said something like ” 95% of the sage brush habitat it Wyoming is still intact; however, this represents the last remaining opportunity to set aside large tracts of grouse habitat in the west.” So the current situation remains -Wyoming supplies 17% of the nation’s energy needs, and at the same time, we have some of the most critical wildlife populations. Oil and gas versus wildlife. It has been my experience that the State of Wyoming and Federal government are so desperate for income from mineral taxes that they will find a way to advance practically any energy project. One of the worst was coal bed methane where 90,000 wells were proposed in the Powder River Basin, 27, 000 of which were actually drilled, and then, it was discovered the wells were not economically feasible. The 90,000 wells which were envisioned would have essentially covered the whole Powder River Basin. Our State is almost completely dependent on mineral tax income.

    What makes it really rough is that our schools, hospitals, towns, health care for elderly and disabled, prisons, etc, are in desperate need of the mineral tax funding. My county gets almost 80% of their income from mineral taxes – a natural resource based economy. Compared to residential subdividing and mineral development, farming and ranching have a minimal affect on grouse populations, and in many situations, the grouse benefit from ag. Example, thousands of water improvements which provide water for wildlife and irrigated alfalfa fields which attract grouse like magnets during the brood rearing season not to mention deer and antelope.. So its a catch 22 situation, damned if you do and damned if you don’t. We have no choice other than to co-exist and that isn’t easy. The ESA provides a fall back safety net if the affect on grouse populations becomes too much.

    Unfortunately, the migration of people from urban areas into Wyoming has accelerated which can only result in more habitat loss. By the way, I remember a grouse lek right off of the end of the airport runway in Jackson – no way it stopped economic development in Jackson Hole. Ranching has the least impact on our grouse – my rancher friends commonly tell of riding horse back across the pastures and grouse get up all around them. Horse back is a really good way to observe the wildlife populations – nice and quite and minimal disturbance. And no one cares more about the grouse than the people who live on the land.

  5. As essential habitat continues to deminish, one wonders what other species will decline in numbers. Are antelope next? And are the measures being taken for grouse going to be enough to squelch the downward trends. Can Game and Fish personnel do what needs to be done in a politically-charged environment?

  6. The statement in the article is quite reveailing

    Because of drought, “habitat projects that keep water on the landscape will be a priority in the coming years,” Schreiber said in her statement. “Sage grouse cannot thrive if the sagebrush habitat is fragmented and in poor condition which is why Wyoming engages in significant efforts to conserve sage grouse and build resiliency in the ecosystem.”

    Yet no mention of the damage and loss of cover in riparian and meadow habitats, the depletion of cover in sagebrush habitats by livestock grazing. No mention of the thousands of water developments for livestock that dewater springs and streams needed for sage grouse brood rearing in addition to fish.

    Sage grouse are doomed as long as the livestock industry dominates the landscape.

  7. But they’re still going to run the Transwest Express & Gateway South Transmission lines through focal Sage Grouse habitat.

  8. The Sage Grouse slaughter by Game and Fish continues as it has for years. Now remember the Game and Fish lists the apparently ferocious Jackrabbit in Wyoming as a “Predator” which can be killed by any way at all 24 hours a day 365 days a year. Try to find a Jackrabbit in this state anywhere anymore.