Greater Sage-Grouse

Greater Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) are the largest grouse in North America and are known for their spectacular mating displays. Each spring at dawn, groups of males gather together in groups in communal areas called “leks”, fan their tails, puff out the yellow air sacs on their chests and strut back and forth making a variety of popping noises to attract mates.

Greater Sage-Grouse, photo by Scott Carpenter

Threats to Greater Sage-Grouse

Sage-Grouse are a sagebrush obligate species, meaning that they are dependent on sagebrush ecosystems for their survival. The”sagebrush sea” was once one of the most widespread ecosystems in the United States but today much of what once existed has been converted, fragmented and degraded. Grazing, development, changing fire regimes, invasive plant species, and other factors have left our sagebrush ecosystems in dire condition and the Greater Sage-Grouse at risk of extinction.

Recovery Efforts

In 2005 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) rejected a petition to list the Greater Sage-Grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). However, that decision was overturned by federal courts which found that USFWS failed to consider the best available science. In 2010 the USFWS found that Sage-Grouse listing was “warranted but precluded” under the Endangered Species Act on the basis that there were other species in more dire need of listing at that time. 

In 2015, USFWS narrowly avoided listing the Greater Sage-Grouse under the Endangered Species Act by adopting conservation plans to protect and recover Sage-Grouse across 11 western states. USFWS asserted that the plans were sufficient to protect and recover sage grouse without the added protections that would have been provided by the ESA. Bird Alliance of Oregon and many other conservation groups felt that even with these plans, sage grouse still merited an ESA listing and that federal and state agencies would be less likely to follow through on required actions without the listing. USFWS is required to revisit this listing decision every five years.

Bird Alliance of Oregon’s Work to Protect Greater Sage-Grouse

Bird Alliance of Oregon has been advocating for the protection and recovery of Sage-Grouse since the 1990s. In 1994 Bird Alliance of Oregon commissioned a status review for sage-grouse in Oregon and Washington. For the past decade, Bird Alliance of Oregon has actively participated in the Oregon Sage-grouse Partnership (SageCon) which developed and is now implementing the Oregon Sage-Grouse Action Plan.

Progress since 2015 has been limited. Some elements of the plan have not been implemented, the State of Oregon has failed in the 2017-18 biennium to allocate adequate funding, and in 2019 the Trump Administration rolled back some protections on federal lands that were part of the plans that allowed the government to avoid listing Sage-Grouse in 2015. It appears at this point that Sage-Grouse will need the full protection of the ESA when the listing decision next comes up for review.

Greater Sage-Grouse
Oregon, USA

Current Bird Alliance of Oregon Actions

  • Participating in SageCon implementing and evaluating the Oregon Sage-Grouse Action Plan
  • Advocating for funding to implement the Oregon-Sage grouse Action Plan in the Oregon Legislature
  • We are currently in a lawsuit with Oregon Natural Desert Association to keep cattle grazing out of 13 Bureau of Land Management Research Natural Areas in compliance with the 2015 Approved Resource Management Plan Amendment. 
  • Opposing misguided efforts by ODFW to kill ravens in Baker County to protect nesting Sage-Grouse from depredation while inadequately addressing primary causes of Sage-Grouse decline.

Natural History: Greater Sage-Grouse

Name: Greater Sage-Grouse

Scientific Name: Centrocercus urophasianus

Conservation Status: IUCN Red List, Near-threatened, Declining

Habitat: Greater Sage-Grouse rely on a mosaic of sagebrush habitats. Their breeding leks (communal areas where a group of males perform courtship displays) are found in open areas within denser sagebrush stands where the birds nest, forage, and find shelter.

Food: In winter, the birds survive almost exclusively on the leaves of various sagebrush species. When additional tender plants and insects become available in the summer, Sage-Grouse will diversify their diet, but sagebrush still dominates. Beetles, grasshoppers, and ants are an important part of the diet of young juveniles.  

Nest Type: Sage-Grouse nests consist of a bowl-shaped depression in the soil, usually under the shade of overhanging sagebrush. The female chooses the nest site, and lines it with soft plant material, small twigs, and feathers shed from her brood patch.

Behavior: The most spectacular behavior in this species is the male’s courtship display at the lek. During the “strutting display” the males fan their spiky tail feathers, lift their yellow “eyebrows” and inflate two large, golden chest sacs, then strut around while issuing a series of coos, pops and whistles. Females wander among the displaying males, and choose their favorite to mate with.  

Description: Large, stout grouse (females 22” and males up to 30”) with small heads, black bellies and mottled brown backs. Males have black chins and throats, white chests and yellow, fleshy combs above their eyes. Females have mottled heads and chests and subtle white cheek patches.

Fun Facts!

  • Greater Sage-Grouse exhibit strong fidelity to their lekking sites. Once a male is established on a lek, he will likely return to it throughout his life, as long as the lek is undisturbed.
  • Greater Sage-Grouse have a unique digestive system adapted to filter toxins from the leaves of sagebrush species. And unlike most other ground birds, they do not have a gizzard (a muscular pouch in the stomach used to grind up hard material.) Because of this, Sage-Grouse can’t eat seeds or nuts, so access to abundant soft leaves and buds of sagebrush is imperative for their survival.
  • In the past 60 years, Greater Sage-Grouse numbers have plummeted 80% — with half of that loss occurring since 2002—mainly due to habitat loss and degradation. Let’s protect these iconic birds!