Wyoming sage grouse numbers ‘alarming’

According to biologists, the decline is caused by habitat loss and drought.

 

A greater sage grouse chick.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife/USFWS

This story was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here by permission.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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. Follow him on Twitter at @AngusThuermerWyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

High Country News Classifieds
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • MATADOR RANCH STEWARD
    The Matador Ranch Steward conducts annual stewardship projects at the Matador Ranch Preserve and occasionally supports stewardship projects elsewhere in Montana's Northern Great Plains. The...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a motivated individual to help build public support for key strategic initiatives in northern Idaho through public outreach and...
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation seeks a steward/educator to lead backcountry volunteer projects and community outreach. FT $36k-$40k, competitive time off. ALSO HIRING OPERATIONS MANAGER. More...
  • ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER
    WANTED: ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER ~ UTAH/COLORADO border ~ Looking to immediately hire an experienced and clean hardworker to join us on a beautiful, very...
  • WYOMING CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Wyoming Conservation Manager is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team, which plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • VEGETATION MANAGEMENT PROGRAM COORDINATOR/ LEAD FORESTER
    The Vegetation Management Program Coordinator/Lead Forester position manages and implements WRWC's Vegetation Management Program - a flagship program of the organization - which provides technical...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty