Sunrise and Sage-Grouse on Sacred Ground

Greater sage-grouse on a lek at the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Photo by Angela Burgess, USFWS.

At 5:00 a.m on a cold April morning in Lander, Wyoming, dressed in warm layers and loaded with camera gear, I rendezvous with a crew of biologists at their office to begin our journey to the Wind River Reservation. Under normal circumstances I would still be dreaming at this time, but the promise of an opportunity to witness something just as alluring and far more enduring than a dream has drawn me out of bed: on this day I’ll have the chance to observe the iconic dance of the greater sage-grouse on Native American lands.

Two male greater sage-grouse dance at sunrise on a Wind River Reservation lek. Photo animation by Jennifer Strickland, USFWS.

Located just west of the center of Wyoming and north of Lander, the Wind River Reservation is home to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapahoe tribes. Bound by the Wind River Mountains, peppered with alpine lakes and filled with rolling hills of vital sagebrush habitat, the 2.2 million acre reservation is the same size as Yellowstone National Park. It also supports many successful populations of Wyoming wildlife, including wolves, grizzlies, pronghorn antelope, and 50 known greater sage-grouse leks.

A pronghorn antelope stands in a swath of sagebrush before the Wind River Mountains. Photo by Jennifer Strickland, USFWS.
“This place is a national treasure,” says Pat Hnilicka, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “It provides wonderful, intact, diverse habitat for pretty much the full complement of species native to the Northern Rockies. I’m very grateful to the tribes for allowing us to assist them in conserving their incredible fish and wildlife resources.”

Hnilicka has dedicated 20 years of his career to working in partnership with the Wind River tribes, first with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and currently with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. As the tribes can support only two game wardens across those 2.2 million acres, Hnilicka and biologists like him across various organizations play a critical role in conserving the wildlife of Wyoming and the American West.

“We’re low on manpower here,” says Ben Snyder, a game warden with the Tribal Fish and Game Department whose primary responsibilities center around wildlife law enforcement. “Pat and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists like Mike Mazur and Dave Skates play a big role in making sure the leks get counted every year. We’ve had a good working relationship for a long time, so we lend a hand whenever we can.”

Pat Hnilicka uses a spotting scope to count greater sage-grouse on the Meadow Creek lek. Photo by Jennifer Strickland, USFWS.

Every morning during lekking season, Hnilicka counts male sage-grouse on a portion of the reservation’s 50 total leks to monitor the bird’s populations over time. “It’s an experience I look forward to every spring,” he explains.

We ride in Hnilicka’s pickup along worn tire tracks in the sagebrush, approaching our first lek just before sunrise. The sky is pregnant with color. As we draw near the target lek, Pat stops the car and we stare in awe at the sight before us: a herd of approximately 250 elk feeding on a ridge behind dancing grouse.

Elk cross behind a lek of greater sage-grouse at sunrise. Photos by Jennifer Strickland, USFWS.
Elk on the run. Photo by Jennifer Strickland, USFWS.

The elk, aware of our presence, exit stage left as we feverishly photograph the experience. The sun begins to crest over the mountaintops, and the sage-grouse are backlit in fiery orange and yellow hues. On this particular day, the aptly named “Sundance Northwest” lek features more males than counted in previous years.

Survey work like Hnilicka’s is essential to track a species’ health, particularly for animals at-risk of requiring federal protection like the greater sage-grouse. Thanks to the work of hundreds of biologists and volunteers from a variety of public and private organizations, these surveys have occurred across Wyoming every April and May for decades.

Tribal Fish and Game’s Ben Snyder has seen changes in sage-grouse management through his career. On the reservation, all wildlife management decisions are led by the tribes, and the Service and other partners provide support under their leadership. “This is a species that needs to be looked after, and ever since I started with Fish and Game, we’ve worked on sage-grouse,” says Snyder.

One notable change has been to the hunting season for sage-grouse. Springtime hunts were once a tradition for tribal members, but the tribe opted to change the season to take place in the fall due to observable declines on the reservation. “I believe these measures are appropriate,” he says.

The approach of using hunting as a management tool is consistent across Wyoming, where the state oversees a brief hunting season during the fall.

Photo by Jennifer Strickland, USFWS.

Tom Christiansen, Wyoming Game and Fish Department Sage-Grouse Program Coordinator, notes that well-regulated hunting has not been demonstrated to be a threat to population sustainability. “Hunters are important advocates for conservation. Data from harvested birds helps biologists determine how well sage-grouse are reproducing, as well as whether populations are increasing or decreasing,” says Christiansen.

The number of birds on the Sundance Northwest lek and other leks on the reservation represent pieces of a much larger conservation puzzle that wildlife biologists and land managers around the country are working together to assemble. While the high male count on Sundance Northwest is a positive sign, this represents only a portion of what’s happening to the species across its range.

Sage-grouse populations are cyclical, meaning the number of birds will vacillate between highs and lows over a period time, like a wavelength. These cycles can take anywhere from 10–15 years, and dozens of factors in addition to management actions can contribute to these variations, from drought and weather conditions to disease and predation.

The average number of male sage-grouse across 14 leks that have been counted every year since 2003. This type of data provides biologists with a snapshot of population health. Chart by Pat Hnilicka, USFWS.

According to biologists, 2017 has been a variable year. “The high count leks are the exception,” says Hnilicka. “Most of the leks we’ve checked are either the same or slightly less than previous years.”

As the state’s overall lead for greater sage-grouse, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department counts and maintains statewide population data. Reports suggest that the observed variations in lek counts are typical, so far. “Over the past few years, sage-grouse in Wyoming have been on an increasing trend in their cycle,” says Christiansen. “In 2016, we saw signs that sage-grouse populations might dip due to a cool, wet spring, and chicks often die due to those conditions,” he explains. “We don’t have all of the survey data in for 2017 yet, however, the Wind River surveys match up with some early reports from elsewhere in the state. Our partnership with the tribes and their sharing of data with us is essential to understanding the health of this bird across Wyoming.”

Uniting biologists and land managers around the state under a common vision, Wyoming’s sage-grouse conservation strategy serves as the backbone for these efforts and is held up as a model for safeguarding the bird using a collaborative, grassroots approach.

“We view it as an all hands and all lands strategy,” says Renny MacKay, Communications Director for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “It works, and it works because of all the partnerships dedicated to conserving sage-grouse while keeping local economies healthy.”

Effective partnerships, like those in place at the Wind River Reservation, have been the foundation of one of the most extraordinary conservation efforts in American history. The actions of federal, state and tribal governments, as well as industry and private ranchers, together have yielded benefits for the greater sage-grouse necessary to ensure the bird and its habitats remain conserved without the need for federal protection, while at the same time supporting a healthy American economy.

Wildlife spectacles like the ones I witnessed at Wind River bring richness to life, reminding us of our connection to the land and all of the living things with which we share this space. It’s hard to imagine an American West where the sage-grouse isn’t dancing. Thankfully, the partnerships like the ones in place in Wyoming are what give this bird a promising future, and I find myself grateful for the commitment demonstrated every day by the individuals responsible for conserving this uniquely western bird. “Sometimes the work can be daunting when you’ve been getting up at 4:00am for several weeks in a row to survey birds,” says Hnilicka, “but then you have those rewarding moments, like seeing a herd of elk pass behind an active lek at sunrise, that remind you what’s worth doing in life.”

The author taking a photo on the Boysen Dam on the Wind River Reservation. Photo by Angela Burgess, USFWS.

By Jennifer Strickland, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Lakewood, Colorado.
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To see and download more photos from this trip, check out the Flickr photo album. To learn more about the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapahoe tribes of Wind River, visit easternshoshone.org and northernarapaho.com. For more information about the greater sage-grouse and the partnerships facilitating its conservation, visit fws.gov/greatersagegrouse or email the author.

A greater sage-grouse on the Meadow Creek lek. Photo by Angela Burgess, USFWS.