Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Strutting Back to a Healthy Ecosystem

A male sage-grouse struts to attract females on a lek.
Credit: Jeannie Stafford/USFWS
One of the things that attracts me most to nature is its fascinating and especially strange aspects. How on earth do salmon know exactly where to return to for spawning? How do beavers instinctively just know how to build dams? All of this amazes me. Since I have been working with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), there are a few handfuls of species I have been introduced to that I ordinarily wouldn’t have learned about. If you are anything like me, especially if you’re not native to the Pacific Northwest, you may find yourself in the same boat. Sure, we really love salmon here; that was one of the first things I discovered. Recently, however, I had the privilege of learning about the equally fascinating and important species – the greater sage-grouse.

What are sage-grouse?
This amazing creature is native to the Western U.S. and Canada. It is a particularly odd looking bird, especially males, which have big puffs of white on the chest, and large, brown, feathered tails. Sage-grouse, found in the high deserts of Idaho, Oregon and other western states, depend sagebrush habitat for survival. The most interesting feature about them is their courtship display. Males gather in areas called “leks” each mating season to strut their stuff for the ladies, and strut, do they ever! Their display consists of fluffy puffed bodies, loud and unique coos, and popping chests that display brilliantly colored yellow air sacs.

Why should we care?
These birds are really a sight to see, but in recent years this species have been in steady decline. Due to a number of impacts ranging from invasive species to wildfires, critical sagebrush habitat has taken a huge hit. The sage-grouse were once greatly abundant in these habitats, and are strong indicators of healthy sagebrush ecosystems. Within these sagebrush ecosystems, a decrease in sage-grouse numbers provides warning of potential declines in many of these other sagebrush dwelling critters. 

What are we doing to help them?
As the decline in this iconic western bird becomes more and more apparent, USFWS and its partners, including other agencies, conservation organizations and private landowners have begun diligent efforts to restore sage-grouse to their once thriving populations.

Sage-grouse gathering on their mating grounds called "leks."
Credit: Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife
Recently, the Service and its partners worked with high school students and local private landowners to connect local youth to this important species and its habitat. Dubbed “Sage-grouse in the Schools,” this program helps to instill a passion for the land and a greater understanding of conservation within the next generation. Participation in this program brings groups of local students out into the field, or leks where they observe sage-grouse and work with local partners to develop habitat improvement strategies.

Stay tuned for updates?
A series of nine videos was produced to showcase the “Sage-grouse in the Schools” program. Stay tuned for more exciting information about sage-grouse and the program on the Pacific Region Connecting People with Nature Team’s Facebook and Twitter pages over the next few months. If your interest was piqued about sage-grouse, please join us in learning all about this wonderful project that dually helps an endangered species and an ecosystem in need, while connecting youth to the great outdoors!

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