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More sage grouse are on the landscape this year, despite overall declining populations

Jeannie Stafford

More sage grouse were out on the landscape this spring, but it may not be a long term trend for the bird.

Every spring, sage grouse go to ‘leks’ – which are sacred mating grounds in the sagebrush. This year, researchers noticed 15 percent more birds at the Wyoming leks compared to last year.

But, Nyssa Whitford, Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) sage grouse and sagebrush biologist, said she is reluctant to say whether this will happen again.

“The overall trend is downward; there's just less sage grouse on the landscape than there used to be,” Whitford said. “It's hard to tell where this fits into the larger picture.”

She said historically, when they’ve seen an uptick in sage grouse it lasts for three to four years before declining for a few years again. We don’t know why exactly, but moisture and good habitat usually plays a role.

“You know if we have several years of drought or not great moisture obviously our populations are not going to respond very well,” she said.

So while the new data is promising, it might not be reversing the overall declining trend.

“It's one year's data point and for those longer term trends, we really need a lot more to go on,” Whitford said.

She added that the largest threat to the bird is development on their habitat – they need large areas of connected untouched sagebrush to thrive.

“So anything that we can do to preserve those large, unbroken tracts of sagebrush and or restore areas to more contiguous sagebrush habitat is good for sage grouse,” she said.

Whitford pointed to projects that are treating the habitat, like restoring the natural sagebrush landscape, removing invasive cheatgrass or improving wetland areas.

Wyoming is currently in talks with the federal government on how best to manage sage grouse and their habitat for the foreseeable future.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.

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