Five Things You Need to Know about Greater Sage-Grouse and the Endangered Species Act

By Gustave Axelson
September 4, 2015
A lone Greater Sage-Grouse stands near a gas well in Wyoming. Photo by Gerrit Vyn A lone Greater Sage-Grouse stands near a gas well in Wyoming. Photo by Gerrit Vyn.

On 21 September 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its decision not to grant Endangered Species Act protection to the Greater Sage-Grouse. Read our statement on the decision.

September 30, 2015, is the court-ordered deadline for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make a final decision about whether to list the Greater Sage-Grouse under the Endangered Species Act.

At stake is perhaps the broadest application (in geographical terms) of the ESA ever. Listing the Greater Sage-Grouse would affect 165 million acres from North Dakota to Washington. By comparison, the high-profile federal listing of the Northern Spotted Owl affected forests in just three states: Oregon, Washington, and northern California.

Sage-grouse have been the subject of fierce debates in the West between energy companies and environmentalists. But those two groups—as well as state and federal agencies, private ranchers, and public land managers—have formed unprecedented coalitions to work together in recent years to keep sage-grouse off the Endangered list, in what has become the largest single-species conservation effort ever.

So how would a listing change this political balance? And if the bird isn’t listed, will any incentive remain for continued collaboration? You’ll hear plenty about sage-grouse this month as the deadline for a listing decision draws near. Here are five things you need to know as you watch the next act of the sage-grouse political drama play out.

The Greater Sage-GrouseThe Greater Sage-Grouse's range has shrunk by about half, and its population has declined by as much as 95%, from pre-settlement estimates as high as 16 million to between 200,000 and 500,000 birds today. (Midpoint of current population estimates depicted above). Figure by Matt Kania, Map Hero.

What’s at stake?

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It comes down to the need to conserve a unique but imperiled species and its landscape without threatening the livelihood of people that live there. The need is acute. The range of the Greater Sage-Grouse—the sagebrush steppe ecosystem—has been severely fragmented over the past two centuries by settlement, farming, ranching, mining, sprawling urban development, invasive species, changes to fire regimes, and fossil-fuel extraction. Sage-grouse numbers have dropped from presettlement estimates as high as 16 million to a few hundred thousand today (a decline of more than 95%). According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, Greater Sage-Grouse populations have declined by more than 60% over the past five decades.

But the range of the Greater Sage-Grouse is also an area of the West where oil and gas production has doubled since 1990. The Western Energy Alliance calculated that a federal Greater Sage-Grouse listing could cost more than $5 billion in annual economic output. A listing would also impact the cattle industry by affecting ranchers who graze their herds on millions of acres of federal land in the West.

How did the September 30 deadline come about?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has already decided once, in 2005, that an endangered listing was not warranted for Greater Sage-Grouse, but that decision was overturned by a lawsuit and ruling in a federal court that the agency hadn’t considered the best available science. Then, in 2010, the USFWS ruled that a Greater Sage-Grouse listing was warranted but precluded by other, higher conservation priorities. That ruling was also challenged and the court ordered USFWS to either list or not list the sage-grouse, giving them until September 30, 2015, to decide.

So has this sage-grouse debate been stuck in the courts for the past decade?

No—there’s actually been a lot of conservation progress during this time. Federal and state agencies and private landowners (mostly ranchers) have developed conservation measures aimed at convincing the USFWS that an Endangered listing isn’t necessary. The Sage Grouse Initiative has restored more than 4 million acres of high-quality habitat (twice the size of Yellowstone National Park) on private lands. This program is funded by the Farm Bill through the Department of Agriculture and contracts with ranchers on easements and incentive programs. On public lands, the federal Bureau of Land Management (the biggest landowner in the West) has issued sage-grouse management plans for all 61 million acres it owns in the species’ range. Altogether, Western states have invested more than $200 million in sage-grouse, and the federal government has invested $300 million—with another $200 million on the way. The grand total spent on sage-grouse conservation is getting into the realm of building a new sports stadium.

“This whole sage-grouse deal, there’s never been a larger conservation effort on the planet directed toward a single species,” says Tom Christiansen, sage-grouse program coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Who cares?

Watch a sage-grouse lek up close and find out what’s really going on in this spectacular display. The exploration continues with more narrated sage-grouse videos here.

Economics aside, this is a unique species that deserves more admiration and positive attention. Some call sage-grouse “America’s bird of paradise,” because of their elaborate spring mating dances—big crowds of female sage-grouse gather in flat, open spots called leks to watch competing males. The sounds echo across the sagebrush— whoop-whoop, pop-pop—as males vigorously thrust yellow air sacs out of a billow of snow-white feathers draped around their neck. Sometimes rival males face off and flap their feathers in a wingbeat scuffles. On spring nights with a full moon, the breeding displays are so vigorous that the sage-grouse dance all night long in the moonlight.

What’s more, conservation for Greater Sage-Grouse benefits all 170 species of birds and mammals that live in the sagebrush steppe ecosystem—including other majestic species such as pronghorn and Golden Eagle. One study showed that habitat conservation for sage-grouse in Wyoming’s Green River Basin doubled the protection of mule deer migration habitat and winter range. The bird is the subject of the listing debate, but the entire ecosystem needs conservation.

So if sage-grouse get listed, is that a win for the birds? If sage-grouse don’t get listed, is that a win for people?

Popular media often characterize this issue as people and birds on opposite sides of the battlefield. But in one respect, you could say that both sage-grouse and people have already won (largest single-species effort ever for conservation, and hundreds of millions of dollars invested into the private lands of ranchers to make their land healthier).

If you want to gain an even deeper understanding of what’s at stake with Greater Sage-Grouse—and a deeper appreciation for these spectacular birds—watch The Sagebrush Sea, a Cornell Lab-produced documentary that aired on

Since the real goal of conservation is to keep a species from declining to the point of becoming endangered, a non-listing could be perceived as an indication that the Endangered Species Act is working—since the possibility of a listing has served as a powerful incentive for governments and private landowners to collaborate well in advance to conserve a species before it becomes critically at risk of extinction.

So far, the USFWS has ruled both ways on two other listing decisions related to similar species—the Gunnison Sage-Grouse was listed as Threatened under the ESA in November 2014, but in April 2015 a distinct population of Greater Sage-Grouse along the Nevada–California border was not listed, largely due to the robust conservation efforts already underway for those sage-grouse.

Whatever the final ruling, many conservationists agree progress has been made. “This ecosystem was utterly without protection 10 years ago,” Audubon Rockies vice president Brian Rutledge told the High Country News in June. “We’re a hell of a lot better off than we were.


  • Edw Brown

    Wind turbine farms are spreading in Sage-Grouse areas and are having an adverse impact on their habita!

  • James_Shelton32

    Nature Conservancy has created maps that show the best places to places turbines for Wind and Birds. We should use this wildlife mapping and get good wind power going.

  • Steve Chindgren

    Just wondering where did you get the data for historical populations? Patterson did a nice study in the early 50″s but at that time predator control by use of poison and shooting would have caused an increase in grouse numbers that was unnatural. I would like to see the data you use to make the statement that sage grouse have declined 95 percent since pre-settlement. What date was that? And how can you make an accurate estimate? Thanks, Steve Chindgren

  • Craig Miller

    A decision to list the species would be a good thing, because it would give the bird maximum protection and would also indicate that politics did not trump science.

    However, it is all but certain that the species will not be listed (because of political pressures). The fact is, the population decline has continued unabated, and nearly all of the conservations measures that have been put into place fall short of the measures recommended by scientists.

    Craig Miller

  • The science isn’t all that good. For example, BLM is knocking back pinyon forests, very expensively, assuming that encroachment on the sage community hurts the birds. But, prior to European encroachment, when grouse populations were high, pinyon forests covered a much larger area than they do today (Grayson, “The Desert Past”, 1993). In my opinion, a listing is a good idea but only if the restrictions are very carefully crafted. And, of course, lek locations here in western Nevada are eagerly passed around among us Cornell Ornithology junkies and other birders, who encroach upon that reproductive activity.

  • drkwarta

    Tell us some of the adverse effects.

  • drkwarta

    Follow the Money

  • goober

    BLM has been chaining and cutting much Pinyon-Juniper old growth (by our own painstaking count of tree rings 300 to 500 years old) – calling this encroachment on the sage brush. Pinyon Juniper supports about 1/3 of the bird species in our area (NE Utah). Many of the “restoration” sites we have visited have no leks in the vicinity and no chance of being populated by sage grouse. It is spending to “prove” conservation.

    Highlights from the SL Tribune article:

    “The Utah Department of Natural Resources hired Benson, an anti-predator activist affiliated with Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, earlier this year to lobby members of Congress, engage with the public and craft legal strategies to get Congress to delay a sage grouse listing decision. (note: $2 million/year contract)

    Utah has spent $110 million restoring 1.1 million acres of habitat and data show the investment is paying off, Benson claimed. As an example, he pointed to a tripling of the bird’s numbers on Parker Mountain, a block of school land in Wayne County.

    But some conservationists contend Benson could be overstating Utah’s success. What matters most is not overall bird numbers, but the average number of males per lek, according to Allison Jones, executive director of Utah Wild Project. Leks are sage grouse mating areas where the birds perform their signature dance.”

  • Andrew A. Clark

    In working through this issue, a great deal of progress has been made in having state and federal government agencies and private landowners and land users, most notably ranchers in particular, work together in finding ways to cooperatively manage both land use and good conservation.
    What has been accomplished is not only a management option for preservation of Sage Grouse habitat but also a model for further cooperative solutions in the future for other similar issues. Work has been done in good faith.
    To list the Sage Grouse now would sabotage what has been a hard-won program that works, with give and take, for all parties.
    Let’s not destroy that model. Give the program a chance to work. Keep working together instead of in opposition to one another. Use funds for management instead of lawsuits. Keep in mind the destructive gridlock in our congress that disallows anything positive to happen and let’s not succumb to that sort of dysfunction.
    Andrew Clark

  • Hi Steve, Thanks for your question. We are referring to numbers cited by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and in a Federal Register document on sage-grouse:
    Hope this helps,

    Hugh Powell
    Senior Science Editor

  • Steve Chindgren

    Population Estimates/Status:

    Estimates of greater sage-grouse abundance
    were mostly anecdotal prior to the implementation of systematic surveys in the 1950s (Braun 1998, p. 139).

    Following a review of published literature and
    anecdotal reports, Connelly et al. (2004, ES-1-3) concluded that the abundanceof sage-grouse has declined from pre-settlement (defined as 1800) numbers.
    In Robert L. Patterson’s book,
    The Sage Grouse in Wyoming, printed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission in1952, Patterson quotes several game wardens:

    1906, Special Assistant John B.
    Duncan, Sheridan- “Sage hens are decreasing rapidly. I would recommend a closedseason for these birds.”

    1908, State Game Warden, D.C.
    Knowlin-“A few localities report an increase of sage hens, but taking the state as a whole, these bird are certainly on the decrease.”

    1909-1915 Season closed on sage
    hens in Sheridan and Natrona counties.

    1910-Special Assistant C.D.
    Blaine, Cody Wyoming-“Sage hens doomed to extinction in vicinity of Cody, owing
    to rapid settlement.”

    According to these statements it would appear that the largest decline in
    sage grouse populations came between 1800 and 1915?



    Steve Chindgren

  • Edw Brown
  • sptw

    The Sage Grouse desperately needs to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. It’s a canary in the coal mine for so many other species. Sage habitat has been destroyed and fragmented and the population decline of so many species is alarming. This website does a good job of explaining:

  • Craig Miller

    In what way would a listing “sabotage” the cooperation and creative solutions that have occurred in the face of an imminent listing? After all, one common “solution” devised is that if certain conservation measures are implemented now, ranchers can continue their operations whether a listing occurs or not. A lawsuit would not challenge any of the cooperative agreements or creative solutions — it would only contend that the government did not follow the law because it bowed to political pressure rather than relied on sound science. That is what the two previous successful lawsuits contended, and the judges agreed.

  • Kerry O’Brien

    “…the sagebrush steppe ecosystem—has been severely fragmented over the past two centuries by settlement, farming, ranching, mining, sprawling urban development,
    invasive species, changes to fire regimes, and fossil-fuel extraction…” It’s interesting that in order to save the Sage Grouse, Wild Horse Herd Areas and some HMAs are being zeroed out to protect habitat. It is true that horse numbers are way over AML (appropriate management limits), but part of the degradation of the land attributed to horses is that when the boundaries were drawn, the migratory patterns (sometimes 75-100 miles per year) were not taken into account. Even a dog kept in a back yard will destroy the grass. My point is not to advocate for un-suppressed growth of wild horses (another issue) but that in spite of the supposed “holistic” range land management, (most of the Great Basin is still running off a range management plan from 1997), we seem, in our hubris, to be overlooking the elephant in the room, fragmented, unrestricted, opportunistic development of all kinds. I wonder if anyone is looking at the connection between sage grouse numbers and the drastic drop in Mule deer herds (500K to 300K) in Wyoming?

    If we’ve learned anything about the organism we call Earth, it’s that studying the parts does not yield good results long term. Except for urban areas, it’s damn near impossible to drive through any
    part of the Great Basin, on roads bisecting habitat and built by mining
    and extraction industries, and not see that industry at work. We continue to disturb, disrupt, build, excavate and practically make pets out of wildlife.

    I know a lot of highly trained people are sincerely committed to “saving” the Sage Grouse. As a conservationist and conservative (i.e., to conserve) the single minded, nearly $750M focus on one species without addressing the proverbial elephant seems like business as usual.

  • drkwarta

    Still no evidence that the development has killed any Grouse, just that development is now adjacent to former Grouse inhabited areas. I still think this is about getting money from industry and the government.

  • drkwarta

    Come back and live in the city so you don’t disturb the Grouse. Also, cut back on the coffee.

  • Westham Greenstreet

    Had trouble with migration to Africa with UK birds in past they rest at London Hackney Marshes but fly of course now.also bats n bees nearby half gone + timber wolf up Sweden? Openly shot em nearby all swedes are for em.

Five Things You Need to Know about Greater Sage-Grouse and the Endangered Species Act