Greater sage grouse are a popular topic in Idaho and the West these days.
Idaho is one of 11 western states where sage grouse reside.
Sage grouse live in Central and Southern Idaho Rangelands. All of the dots on the map indicate sage grouse Leks, or mating grounds – historic and active.
Three types of sage grouse live in the West:
- Greater Sage Grouse, the kind that live in Idaho and the Great Basin
- Bi-State Sage Grouse, a subgroup of Greater Sage Grouse that live on the California-Nevada border.
- Gunnison Sage Grouse live in Western Colorado
Sage grouse are the largest member of the grouse family in North America. They’re a chicken-like bird with a maximum height of 2 feet and length of about 2.5 feet. Male birds are twice as large as females. Large males weigh about 6 pounds.
Sage grouse must have sagebrush to survive. They are known as a sagebrush-obligate species because of their dependence on sagebrush for food, cover and nesting.
The birds are secretive and live in remote places, where we have lots of sagebrush, bunchgrasses, insects and forbs, which help sage grouse thrive.
Let’s take a look at their life cycle, threats posed by predators, and see what it takes for sage grouse to survive on Idaho’s Rangelands.
Springtime – Mating Season!
Between March and May, sage grouse engage in a mating ritual that’s quite unique.
Male birds – equipped with spiky fanned tail feathers and vocalizing capabilities – dance on the lek to attract female birds for mating.
The males like mostly flat, compacted areas with limited cover for Lekking activities so the female birds can see and hear them.
Watch the males try to look impressive by puffing up their chests, extending their yellow air sacs, and swishing their wings.
They do the dance every day at dawn until the mating season is over.
During the lekking period, it’s a good time for wildlife professionals to count male birds on Leks to get a sense of overall population trends.
Idaho has more than 500 active sage grouse leks statewide. Some leks have as few as 2 birds while some have more than a 100!
While the males dance away, female sage grouse establish a nest site under a sagebrush bush and lay 6 and 9 eggs. The egg-incubation period takes 25-29 days.
The eggs are light to dark olive-buff color.
Female sage grouse primarily feed off insects, forbs and sagebrush leaves while keeping the eggs warm.
Predators can be a big factor at this life stage. Ravens, coyotes, badgers, skunks, red foxes and ground squirrels may eat the eggs.
Within minutes of hatching, the birds learn to feed themselves. They learn to fly after about 10 days. By 5 weeks of age, they become strong fliers.
After the chicks hatch, they seek out insects like ants, beetles and grasshoppers for a protein-rich diet.
As the chicks get older and the rangelands dry out, female sage grouse travel away from sagebrush habitat to find wet meadows, where they can find forbs and insects to eat.
Wet meadow habitats are found on private and public Rangelands by perennial streams and creek-bottoms.
Sage grouse also like meadow habitat in irrigated pastures on farms and ranches.
Cattle often share the irrigated pastures with sage grouse. Insect activity in cow manure can be another source of protein for sage grouse broods.
As the summer heats up, female sage grouse may take their broods to cooler, higher elevations in search of forbs, insects and soft succulent plants.
Depending on location, sage grouse broods may travel 20-50 miles during the summer migration period. The red dots on this map show the migration routes by hen and her brood.
In the fall, sage grouse in Idaho migrate up to 120 miles back to their nesting grounds and winter range. Here, their diet reverts back to mainly sagebrush leaves.
Conservation and Protection
Greater sage grouse were petitioned for protection under the Endangered Species Act but the federal government ruled in 2015 that listing was not warranted.
In 2021, the Greater Sage Grouse Conservation Plan was adopted by Idaho Governor Brad Little. The plan provides guidelines for multiple use management in sage grouse habitat management areas.
The 2021 Idaho sage grouse plan builds on conservation projects recommended by Local Working Groups – ranchers, private landowners and wildlife professionals – across Southern Idaho since the 1990s.
Removing juniper trees to open up mountain meadows is a common conservation practice that’s shown proven results for sage grouse and other wildlife.
The biggest threats to sage grouse survival are:
- The spread of invasive annual grasses and noxious weeds, which often proliferate in burned areas post-fire.
- Destruction of sagebrush habitat by new development.
As we’ve mentioned, natural predators can also pose a threat to their survival.
Why do cows matter?
While improper livestock grazing was determined by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to pose a secondary threat to sage grouse, research shows that properly managed livestock grazing is good for the bird.
That led to the phrase, “What’s good for the herd, is good for the bird.”
A recent Montana State University study found that insects preferred by sage grouse chicks are 13 percent more prevalent on grazed lands vs. lands closed to grazing.
The value of irrigated meadows on private ranchland for sage grouse led the Sage Grouse Initiative and Working Lands for Wildlife to partner with 2,500 ranchers to enhance wildlife habitat on 9 million acres of private land in 11 western states with Farm Bill funding.
The habitat improvement projects are benefitting sage grouse, livestock and wildlife, officials say.
Sport hunting for sage grouse
In areas where Idaho has strong sage grouse populations – game units shown in color on the map – Idaho Fish and Game allows sport hunting on a limited basis in the fall.
Why is hunting allowed?
Idaho Fish and Game experts say they can allow sport hunting if there is a “harvestable surplus” of sage grouse in core habitat areas.
Fish and Game limits the number of hunting tags to two per hunter. A 10 percent harvest will not harm the overall sage grouse populations in core habitat areas, experts say. Idaho sets tag numbers to allow up to 8% of the fall population index to be harvested.
In areas where sage grouse populations are not doing as well, no hunting is allowed. These game units are shown in white on the map.
As a general rule, sage grouse are long-lived with low reproductive success compared to other grouse species. Their survival rates fluctuate each year but their overall lifespan can be as high as 6-8 years of age.
Idaho’s conservation plan focuses on saving our best sage grouse habitat to sustain core sage grouse populations.
If we preserve the quality sagebrush habitat, approximately 300 other wildlife species will benefit as well, experts say.
What’s to love about sage grouse?
So now that you know everything about Greater sage grouse, what’s to love about these birds?
- Males have impressive dance moves
- They’re strong fliers
- Males have spiky tails – amply displayed during the Lekking season
- They live in beautiful, remote country.
- Ladies choice – it’s up to the females to select their dance and mating partners.
For more information about sage grouse in Idaho, go to: https://idfg.idaho.gov/wildlife/sage-grouse