Winter and the Greater Sage Grouse

The Greater Sage Grouse depends on sagebrush as a food source, nearly exclusively, during the winter months.  Unlike most other birds and animals, the sustenance found in sagebrush leaves helps this grouse species thrive - all winter long.  In fact, many actually gain weight.  Gained weight that will help them during the exciting spring season to come. 

Conifers and development begin to take over the sagebrush range in Southwest Montana.

Conifers and development begin to take over the sagebrush range in Southwest Montana.

The cover provided by the sagebrush structure also provide necessary shelter from the fierce rangeland elements.  Even on the coldest and snowiest days, sage grouse can find shelter behind the snowdrifts caused by the sagebrush.  By as early as February, sage grouse males begin to gather on leks.  Leks are open places between clusters of sagebrush.  These gatherings mark the beginning of the annual spring mating season, and so begins their dancing and strutting to attract mates.

Within the sagebrush rangelands, hardy animals of all sizes and shapes may be found.  They've adapted to thrive in the brutal conditions of high country winter and can live vital lives with punishing sunlight, very little water, and the deep cold that often settles in these wild places.  But, come late winter, the effects of the punishing elements show their toll on the creatures. Though the sagebrush rangelands used to cover nearly 300 million acres (almost the size of Alaska), this robust ecosystem has been fragmented and native species are squeezed out of their homes.  Encroaching development, encroaching conifers, agricultural advancement and several unnaturally introduced invasive species have dropped the habitable space for native species to nearly half of that original expanse.

Of the remaining sage grouse habitat, the BLM manages 67 million acres.  This land in the public trust connect private, state and federally managed lands across the sagebrush range. Conserving cornerstone species in such a large ecosystem requires a hands-on approach from all involved - and within all lands involved.

Hannah Nikonow