Sage grouse numbers are likely to decline next year, part of a downswing in the bird’s population that happens about every decade, according to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
The health of the finicky bird with the comical mating call has been the subject of heated debate in recent years as state and federal agencies worked to stall a rapid decline over the last century. The push to stave off an endangered species listing is reflective of some of the diverse interests in the state, and brought Wyoming agencies, federal agents, industries, ranchers and environmentalists into the same room to build a plan.
But within the larger, and often political, discussion of saving the grouse population, is the natural ebb and flow of its numbers, with about 10 years passing between peak population counts.
According to a collection of wings from male and female birds, young and old from the last hunt season, the bird’s numbers are likely headed down.
“We are on the declining cycle for sage grouse right now,” said Tom Christiansen, sage grouse program coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “In the big picture, it’s not a concern.”
Judging from about 2,000 wings collected statewide from hunters, biologists estimate that each hen produced about 1.2 sage grouse chicks earlier this year that survived into the fall.
A stable population produces around 1.5 chicks per hen, biologists say.
Come spring, when biologists head out to observe mating areas where males congregate waiting for hens to come and breed, those counts are likely to show a decline under 10 percent, Christiansen said.
“It probably won’t be noticeable to most people,” he said.
This year’s wing count data also showed more variation than normal across the state, with some regions like the Rawlins and Baggs area producing fewer chicks per hen. It’s not clear why that’s the case, Christiansen said.
Wyoming is home to about 40 percent of the sage grouse population in the West, though birds are found in 11 other states and across the Canadian border. The state has taken a central role in protecting the species, both to preserve the larger habitat that sage grouse and other species depend on, and to avoid a federal endangered species listing.
An endangered species designation for sage grouse would force a number of strict provisions that would likely put significant pressure on oil and gas development, one of Wyoming’s key economic drivers. The listing would also be hard on ranchers and mine owners. Many environmentalists fought to prevent a listing too, wary that protecting the bird in such a way would impact so many industries and interests it could undermine conservation efforts long term.
A coordinated state effort to address the population decline began nearly a decade ago, and federal strategies that mirrored Wyoming’s approach were put in place in 2015. A recent attempt to update those federal plans, and potentially change them, has sparked controversy this year from those concerned that industry interests would trump habitat protection.
Of particular concern to critics of change was rhetoric from the Trump Administration about establishing population targets as part of the management strategy. The bird’s population cycle is one of the reasons that approach is problematic, they say. And it’s one of the reasons people like Gov. Matt Mead have asked that the feds let the current plans play out.
Since Wyoming and other agencies started paying attention to sage grouse declines in the mid-’90s, and then began to implement policies about 10 years ago, the rapid slide in population has leveled off, said Christiansen.
An increase in population hasn’t been noted yet.
“We’re dealing with a hard environmental and a long-lived bird,” he said. “It takes time for those responses to show up in the environment.”