Voices from Sage-Grouse Country

Coloradan Sees Sage-Grouse as Bellwether Species

By Judith Kohler

Westerners who live, recreate and make their living in Sagebrush Country want to save the greater sage-grouse, a bird that once numbered in the millions, and want to save the sagebrush steppe. The steppe, which is habitat for sage-grouse and more than 350 species, has been reduced in size and degraded by urbanization, wildfires, invasive species, energy development, overgrazing. There are fewer than a half million sage-grouse across 11 Western states.

Communities, ranchers, state and local agencies and nonprofits have teamed up to conserve sage-grouse and the habitat that’s also home to mule deer, elk and pronghorn. Their work and conservation plans the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management wrote with input from states and locals led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide that sage-grouse didn’t need to be placed on the endangered species list.

A year after that decision, it’s time to put the plans in action and rebuild the population of a signature Western species. Leading up to Sept. 22, the one-year anniversary of Fish and Wildlife’s announcement, the National Wildlife Federation is daily showcasing Westerners who care about the greater sage-grouse and its habitat. They want the political wrangling over the conservation plans to stop so we can get on with saving the bird and the herds.

These are some of the “Voices of the Sage.”

Sagebrush country is home to more than 350 plant and animal species that depend on this unique landscape. Image: John Hottman.

The sagebrush country that Doug Waggoner spends a lot of his outdoor time enjoying couldn’t be more different from the green, tree-covered Connecticut where he grew up.

“It took me some time to get used to it, that’s for sure. From the air it looked flat and bland,” says Waggoner, who moved to Colorado’s Routt County in 1967. “But once you get out in that country and get into that terrain, it opens up.”

By early spring, the sportsman and climber likes to escape the snowy Steamboat Springs area and venture into the sagebrush steppe.

“It seems like hunting on the West Slope for deer, elk, or grouse, we always spend a good deal of time in sagebrush and scrub oak. I am always amazed at how much cover and food the sagebrush terrain provides for game and predators,” he adds.

Waggoner believes the greater sage-grouse is a bellwether for the health of the diverse habitat and other wildlife.

The male Greater Sage-grouse gets plenty of attention from photographers for his elaborate mating display, but humans with cameras aren’t the intended targets of the male’s performance. Image: US Fish and Wildlife Service

“We should protect this valuable ecology by continuing to provide habitat for the sage-grouse and mule deer,” he says.

“It’s important for the conservation plans to go forward, absolutely. It’s a good starting point — working with private and public agencies and people who own property in the area.”

Waggoner notes that conservation measures have paid off for other species.

“I do a little rock climbing and there are peregrine falcon closures throughout the area in the spring. Even here in Steamboat Springs there are areas we can’t climb because of their presence. I think it annoyed people at first, but now it’s just become part of the understanding. It’s important that those birds are back and more plentiful now.”

From the NWF — Our Public Lands team:

The diverse voices represented in these “Voices of the Sage” stories are a microcosm of the many stakeholders that came together to craft plans to save the Greater Sage-grouse. As you can see, this conservation effort is far bigger than the five-pound bird. These conservation plans will face attacks from multiple levels in coming years, but we will continue to ensure plans to protect and restore the Greater Sage-grouse and the sagebrush ecosystem move forward.

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