Greater Sage-Grouse - News

Conserving America's Future

Science on parade as grouse researchers flock to Elko

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

Contact: Theo Stein| 303-236-4336 |

ELKO, NV- Fearscapes, hen-bots, cryogenically cooled thermal imagers and a host of other state-of-the-art research projects drew the nation's top greater sage-grouse experts to northeastern Nevada for the 29th Western Agencies Sage and Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse Workshop June 16-19. The conference featured two days of presentations on the latest developments in grouse conservation sandwiched around a tour of northeastern Nevada's sagebrush country.

Ted Koch, Nevada State Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, welcomed the almost 200 attendees by urging them to continue working together on the unprecedented series of projects unfolding across the west aimed at conserving the grouse and its sagebrush habitat in advance of the September 2015 Endangered Species listing deadline. "We have a unique opportunity to make a significant difference," said Koch. "A paradigm shift is occurring. We can do it; we must do it; we will do it."

The biannual conference, organized by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, comes a little more than one year before a court-mandated determination by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as to whether the greater sage-grouse should be listed under the Endangered Species Act. The September 2015 listing deadline has precipitated an unprecedented collaborative effort by federal and state agencies, conservation districts, cattlemen, sportsmens' and conservation groups and others to finalize grouse conservation plans and voluntary conservation projects in an all-out effort to head off the need for federal protection.

Nineteenth century travelers reported flocks of sage-grouse so large they "darkened the skies," but by the1950s it was apparent that significant, range-wide population declines had occurred. In 1954, WAFWA formed the Western States Sage-Grouse Technical Committee and began developing strategies to monitor and manage sage-grouse. Hundreds of scientific papers published since then have explored key aspects of sage-grouse biology, behavior and habitat. But the focus of several conference presentations on new research tools, such as a robotic sage-grouse hen able to capture video of courting males and thermal imagers capable of identifying sage-grouse heat signatures from the air, demonstrate that researchers contine to find ingenious ways to explore the lives and needs of these iconic prairie birds.

Gail Patricelli, a professor at the University of California, Davis, wanted an up-close and personal look to gain new insights to mating sage-grouse behavior. So Patricelli and colleagues developed a compact, high-tech acoustic system that combines digital audio and video recording with techniques for data analysis and visualization. Patricelli hides the recording equipment in a robotic sage-grouse hen that can wheel itself out onto the lek amid displaying males. Patricelli’s team has used the hen-bot to study how noise pollution might interfere with courtship and how male lekking displays relate to foraging and habitat use off the lek. The hen-bot, nicknamed "Snooki," is so realistic that the male birds strut right up to her, giving Patricelli's team an unparalleled close-up of their behavior.

Sage-grouse are one of the few animals that can subsist on a diet of only sagebrush during the fall and winter, and actually put on weight during the long winters of the Interior West. But a research effort headed by University of Idaho professor Jennifer Forbey shows that for grouse, not all sagebrush is equal. Furbey's research uses ultra-violet light and chemical analysis to suggest that grouse selectively browse on sagebrush that has higher levels of protein and lower levels of the volatile and toxic chemicals that give the plant its intensely aromatic smell. She suspects the birds may be able to perceive visual and olfactory cues to select the most nutritious parts of sagebrush that humans cannot.

Assessing habitat value is a primary goal for resource managers. To better understand how sage-grouse balance the risk predation with the need to eat, another Forbey project, this one with Boise State grad student Peter Olsoy, is pioneering the use of a laser scanning device to create virtual, digital reproductions of sagebrush and its herbacious understory. This allows researchers to visualize individual plants or plant assemblages from any perspective - even from that of a eagle in flight or a hiding grouse. The researchers used near-infrared spectroscopy to predict the nutrional value of sagebrush to map "foodscapes." Finally, they're stitching these perspectives together using drones to map these "foodscapes" and "fearscapes" at the landscape scale.

Another new aerial technology application, presented by a pair of retired military officers, is exploring the use of a cryogenically cooled, stabilized thermal imager that can identify sage-grouse by their heat signatures from the air from up to three-quarters of a mile away. The camera has also been successfully used to survey Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, elk, pronghorn, deer, bats and wolf pups. Bruce Greenhalgh of Owyhee Air Research said aerial surveys can help sage-grouse researchers supplement ground observations, particularly when late snow cover or rough terrain prevents approaching on foot.

The new research tools comprised just a few of the more than 40 topics covered at the conference, but they got the attention of some of the field's most prominent scientists, including San Stiver, vice-chair of WAFWA's Western Bird Conservation Committee and Western States Sage-Grouse Coordinator.

"The most interesting thing to me is the number of new people here who have not previously been involved in grouse research applying techniques they developed in studying other species," Stiver said.


The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with Others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American People.

Greater Sage-Grouse.  Credit: USFWS.

Why care about sagebrush?

Sagebrush country may look empty, but it's home to important wildlife and other natural resources. Learn more.

Greater Sage-Grouse distribution map. Credit: USFWS.


Learn more about the new Sagebrush Ecosystem Curriculum project.

Greater Sage-Grouse in field. Credit: USFWS.

Conservation Partners

Sage-grouse conservation happens on the ground. Learn more about what our partners are doing here.