Washington wasn’t included in the new federal plan announced last week for preserving sagebrush habitat in 11 Western states, but it’s working just as hard to protect the greater sage-grouse that lives in those wide open spaces.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife and the federal Bureau of Land Management both track sage-grouse populations, and volunteers spent March through May helping to count them. Jen Syrowitz with Audubon Washington was in Lincoln County, where her group spotted 36 male sage-grouse in one area.
“That’s a large group of birds to be in one place, so that’s pretty healthy,” she says. “The feedback we received from the leader of this program was that the counts are stable in this particular area.”
Greater sage-grouse in Washington number only about 1,200 birds scattered across four counties – less than 10 percent of their historic territory. The state initially listed the bird as a threatened species in 1998.
Christi Norman, Eastern Washington program manager with Audubon Washington, says some sage-grouse living in the area today were transplanted from Oregon and Nevada – and it’s a good sign they’re staying. She credits a decade of habitat restoration efforts by state and federal agencies working in conjunction with local farmers.
“These birds are very sensitive to fragmentation of the habitat, and their populations have gotten very isolated in several large areas,” says Norman. “The habitat restoration they’ve done there is so good I think it bodes well for these birds to persist.”
Going on a sage-grouse count this year was a first-time experience for Audubon Washington executive director Gail Gatton, who says the male birds’ unique mating dance is unforgettable.
“I know that these science folks, you know, think about this differently,” she says. “But I look at ’em and they’re just ridiculous out there! They make you laugh. They’re kind of goofy and they puff up, and it was really interesting and fun to watch.”
Challenges for sage-grouse survival include farming and wildfire, which both divide their habitat, and overgrazing, which spreads invasive weeds such as cheatgrass that compete with sagebrush.