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Sage Grouse Declined 80 Percent Since The 1960s, But A New System May Help

Dorian Anderson/Audubon Photography Awards

Wyoming is a stronghold for the sage grouse. But a new study from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) finds the birds are on a long-term decline.

USGS research ecologist Cameron Aldridge and his team compiled data from states across the entire range of the sage grouse. The scientists saw an 80 percent decline in males attending breeding grounds (or leks) since the 1960s.

"Sage grouse are sort of an icon of the West and they represent the intactness or the health of the sagebrush ecosystem," he said. "They've sort of been set on this pedestal as this umbrella that if sage grouse are doing well, so are all the other plants and critters and functions of the sagebrush ecosystem."

Aldridge said the decline likely comes from a loss and degradation of the bird's habitat as a result of wildfire, energy development, and drought.

But the research group has created a database and an early alert computer system that should help managers identify at-risk sage grouse. USGS sagebrush ecosystem specialist Lief Wiechman said it will monitor the bird population annually.

"Having a tool that can help identify where issues are happening on the landscape, as well as where effective conservation may have been implemented, may help us provide benefits and identify where benefits can be made for other sagebrush-dependent species," he said.

Instead of retroactively measuring a population decline, Wiechman said the new system will help managers be proactive in protecting sage grouse.

Have a question about this story? Please contact the reporter, Ashley Piccone, at apiccone@uwyo.edu.

Ashley is a PhD student in Astronomy and Physics at UW. She loves to communicate science and does so with WPM, on the Astrobites blog, and through outreach events. She was born in Colorado and got her BS in Engineering Physics at Colorado School of Mines. Ashley loves hiking and backpacking during Wyoming days and the clear starry skies at night!
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