Birds dance, humans count in hopes of saving iconic sage-grouse

BUFFALO — On Johnson County's most remote stretches of land, across the sagebrush sea, Greater Sage-Grouse finish the most consequential part of their day before most humans have had their coffee. As the day's first light breaks, the male bird, with its distinctive tail feathers and puffed-out white chest with two yellow air sacs, is working to attract a female grouse for mating.

To make the characteristic call that can only be described as the sound of an object hitting water, the male grouse fills his air sacs, so they rise near his head, and then they deflate and fall toward his feet. Over and over again.

"That water-drop sound, it does carry," said Bill Ostheimer, supervisory natural resource specialist for the Bureau of Land Management's Buffalo Field Office, from the driver's seat of his government-issued vehicle. "You're supposed to be able to hear it from a mile away." 

And Ostheimer would know. 

He's been an audience to this song and dance for 18 years. Each year, in March and April, he and other BLM employees and sage-grouse stakeholders wake up in the early morning hours to count males on active leks (breeding locations) in northeastern Wyoming, under the direction of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

The goal is to avoid disturbing the high-strung bird, which means parking the car at least a dozen yards away. Ostheimer is aided by binoculars and experience, counting what could look to the untrained eye like blobs in the still-dark morning.

Ostheimer said that after moving into a supervisory role, he gave up most of his field work. But he's held onto his lek counts. To generate the most accurate count, Ostheimer will visit the same leks three different times, at least a week apart.

The two rituals — male birds strutting and singing to capture the attention of females and Ostheimer visiting the site to count them — are both tied to the bird's survival.

When Ostheimer started his career as a wildlife biologist 30 years ago, he was a “large carnivore guy.”

In his experience, the species most closely related to sage-grouse, as far as management needs go, is the grizzly bear.

“They both kind of need the same thing, which is big, wild country, and they need us to leave them and their habitats alone,” he said. “If we could do that, then both of those species are just fine.”

The Endangered Species Act gives the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the ability to examine species and categorize them as threatened or endangered, which then brings certain protections and requires that the federal government make plans for their recovery.

Sage-grouse have been petitioned for listing under the ESA at least 52 times since 1983, according to Fish and Wildlife, though a provision in the federal budget prevents the agency from doing so. U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, previously told the Bulletin that the rider is in place to allow state management plans, such as those in Wyoming, to succeed without the influence of the federal government.

Their populations are cyclical, rising and falling, though scientists believe weather and climate play a role.

Advocates for the species' conservation attribute this loss to decimation of sagebrush habitat due to energy development and wildfires.

Still, landowners who care about the bird can and have employed best management practices. Ostheimer pointed out some of those en route to a lek, including reflectors on fences so the birds don't fly into them. And because so many people care about this bird and its survival, experts count them.

Cheyenne Stewart is Game and Fish's Sheridan Region wildlife management coordinator and a member of the Northeast Wyoming Sage-Grouse Local Working Group. Game and Fish monitors a lot of animal populations, including both game and nongame species, using survey designs based on the biology and behavior of each species.

Sage-grouse lek counts have been part of Game and Fish attempts to monitor the species since the 1940s, said Nyssa Whitford, the agency's wildlife geographic information system analyst. The methods the department uses today date back to the late 1990s.

The method used for counting sage-grouse, Stewart said, is unique. That's because the bird's behavior is unique. Sage-grouse have high site fidelity, meaning they are very likely to return to the lek they attended the previous year. These leks are also in roughly the same location each spring. Both of these factors make it possible for those monitoring the species to take an accurate census, Stewart said.

Like the once-every-decade U.S. Census that counts the country's human population, a wildlife census means counting each animal present. This method isn't used much, Stewart said, because it only works for species with high site fidelity, such as sage-grouse.

Wyoming has roughly 1,700 occupied leks, and 335 of those are in northeast Wyoming, Whitford said.

“State partners, federal partners, NGOs, private citizens, consultants and different companies all work together to monitor sage-grouse leks in the spring," she said. "It's a monumental effort with that many leks.”

Game and Fish has a handbook of biological techniques. It advises that participants visit the lek in April and May, during peak breeding season, between 30 minutes before sunrise and an hour after. Those who count are asked to visit the same lek three times, roughly a week apart.

Western states that monitor and manage sage-grouse have mostly similar counting methods, Whitford said, though Wyoming's wildlife managers are adamant about visiting leks at least three times. Other jurisdictions might not have the staffing for that to happen, she said.

There are a few reasons that Game and Fish continues to monitor sage-grouse in this way, Stewart said. Because researchers have been visiting leks year after year, multiple times, the agency has been able to build an impressive data set that shows long-term trends.

"That's also pretty unique to sage-grouse,” Stewart said. “There are a lot of species that we don't have that ability to have long-term trends, where the methods stay consistent.”

Monitoring sage-grouse during lekking is also the option that is least likely to disturb the bird, she said. It's not on the winter range, where they might be stressed, nor is it interrupting nesting or brood rearing.

Lek data are used to assess population trends, changing habitat conditions and impacts of disturbance, according to the Game and Fish handbook. Lek locations are also incorporated into GIS layers to guide future development and habitat management decisions.

The sage-grouse counting process purposely leaves out a party vital to the mating ritual: the female.

The object of the male bird's attention is not counted as part of the official Game and Fish count. Part of that, Ostheimer said, is because the males, with their bravado and bright white chests and large feathers, are easier to see. Females are smaller than their male counterparts, and they blend into the sagebrush steppe.

Game and Fish, in its sage-grouse counting handbook, says that females are difficult to accurately count because of their “secretive nature and cryptic appearance.”

Stakeholders have been debating the state of sage-grouse for a long time. Studies show that its populations are cyclical, so downswings are normal, though advocates for the species worry that there haven't been many upswings.

For Ostheimer, in his 18th season visiting leks, the decline is apparent.

He knows that it was 18 years ago, because his wife, in the passenger seat, was pregnant with his now 17-year-old daughter.

Sitting over the ridge in their Jeep, Ostheimer saw and heard the dances and songs of 75 male sage-grouse accompanied by 15 females.

On that same lek, “my high count was eight last year,” he said.

People often accuse him of overstating the loss, he said.

"All I can tell you is what I've seen,” Ostheimer said. “That is a precipitous loss of sage-grouse out here.”

But, there is still hope.

“If we can keep them here and take the impacts away, get the energy infrastructure out, get our busy selves off the landscape, and if there's still birds out here, then we have a chance because we've got a stock of animals that can repopulate the landscape,” Ostheimer said. “If they go away completely, we can't get them back."