SOUTH HILLS — Many of the sage grouse that survive the fall and winter will return to the Badger Fire burn area to breed.
The birds are loyal to their breeding grounds — lek sites — even if those grounds have been burned to a crisp. In late winter or early spring, sage grouse males will once again perform their courtship displays, now on charred land, trying to seduce the females. They’ll strut, fan their spiky tail feathers, inflate the yellow air sacs on their chests and make ethereal popping sounds. A few will breed.
But sage grouse can’t live without sagebrush. They eat it, hide in it and nest in it. Most of the sagebrush in the Badger Fire burn area is gone now, and females that do breed this spring are going to have a difficult or impossible time trying to find a shrub to nest under.
Sage grouse saw thousands of acres of their habitat burn in the Badger Fire. And while this burn hit an area used by just a few hundred birds, this was just one of many massive fires that keep rolling through the West’s sagebrush steppe and hurting the entire species.
“Every year it seems we just kind of chip away at it,” Idaho Fish and Game sage grouse coordinator Ann Moser said.
Both the Idaho and West-wide sage grouse populations have been steadily tumbling for the last 60 years. Sage grouse numbers are cyclical, ebbing and growing between boom and bust years, but Moser noted Idaho sage grouse numbers right now are “probably at the lowest of the lowest in history.”
For a bird that lives in the sagebrush sea from Wyoming to eastern California and Washington to southern Utah, the habitat loss from the Badger Fire isn’t especially significant when considered in isolation. But it’s part of a troubling trend toward extinction.
Massive fires remove precious sagebrush every year. New energy projects cut into or degrade remaining habitat. Climate change increases drought conditions. Invasive cheatgrass increases fire frequency and overruns native species that sage grouse need. The birds even have to contend with West Nile virus.
Under attack from all sides, sage grouse need all the healthy sagebrush they can get. The Badger Fire represents yet another loss in a war that, so far, has had few wins for the embattled bird.
Jack Connelly, one of the world’s leading sage grouse experts and a biologist who spent decades studying sage grouse with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said it’s depressing and frustrating to watch habitat disappear year after year after year.
“The first thought is damn, another nail in the coffin,” Connelly said of the Badger Fire. “It’s just like one bad thing after another after another, and how and when are we going to get this stuff under control. It’s a tough deal, and fixing the problem is going to take strong leadership and it’s going to take people that are committed to using the best available science, and I don’t see that happening right now.”
The big burn
Sage grouse don’t stray far from sagebrush, but they do move around a fair bit in the South Hills.
U.S. Forest Service District Wildlife Biologist Scott Soletti explained that the 90,000-acre Badger Fire will affect sage grouse summer and winter habitat differently.
“Sage grouse in the South Hills often follow kind of a typical mountain pattern that many wildlife species follow,” Soletti said.
The birds nest down in the shrubbier, lower elevation areas. Once their chicks hatch, the birds move up higher in the South Hills, essentially following the spring greenup. They’ll spend their summers, for the most part, up higher, eating sagebrush, grass, forbs and insects.
Soletti said that in the upper elevation areas of the South Hills, sage grouse should be able to find food despite the burn. Their biggest problem in the summer will be cover — hiding places. The shrubs that provided screening have been removed in much of the Badger Fire area, and it will take at least a couple of decades for those plants to grow all the way back.
The changes to the summering range aren’t nearly as worrying as the loss of breeding and wintering habitat, Soletti said.
Even if the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and other organizations are relatively successful in their joint sagebrush rehabilitation efforts, the shrubs won’t grow back to their former sizes and densities for 25 or 35 years in many cases. It could take even longer.
In the interim, the sage grouse that have been wintering and breeding in the sagebrush on the northern, lower end of the Badger Fire have lost part of their home. They’ll have to try to find somewhere else to winter and breed. Some of the birds will move into neighboring habitat in the unburned parts of the South Hills. Soletti noted that some birds could try to breed in the islands of sagebrush that remain in the burn area, although predators are going to be targeting those islands.
The South Hills sage grouse population had already been facing challenges.
“We don’t have very good sagebrush regeneration from the Cave Canyon Fire yet,” Soletti said, referring to the burn that swept through 90,000 acres of its own just east of, and partially overlapping with, the Badger Fire.
The South Hills leks in the Badger burn area hadn’t been especially robust. Of the 14 active leks — there are 25 in total, but two are abandoned and Fish and Game doesn’t know the status of all of them — only a few had more than 20 males. A lot of them were down to a few grouse each.
Ideally, the aerial sagebrush seeding the Forest Service, BLM and other agencies do this winter will lead to quick sagebrush regeneration. The best-case scenario is that the habitat recovers quickly and some of the birds at the bigger leks could split off and start new leks in the burn areas.
There are many examples throughout the West where sage grouse haven’t returned to burn areas though. And biologists expect to see fewer sage grouse in the burn area soon.
“It’s likely that a lot of the leks that have low attendance … will no longer be active and will disappear in the next five years,” Soletti said.
Losing home on the range
Fifty years ago you could have gone out into the sagebrush and seen a flock of several hundred sage grouse in many parts of the West and the sighting wouldn’t have been very noteworthy. At their peak, before European settlement, biologists estimate there were 16 million sage grouse.
There might be a few hundred thousand left. The population has declined by at least half since 1960, and the last 15 years have been especially brutal.
Sage grouse declines are often comparable between different states — these days the bird lives in Wyoming (which has 40% of all sage grouse), Idaho, Colorado, Montana, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Utah and parts of California. A few sage grouse still live in the western Dakotas, and fewer than a hundred are hanging on in southern Canada. The loss of birds in Idaho is stark, but it generally isn’t much different from the drops elsewhere.
Back in 2006, Idaho sage grouse appeared to be doing well after some low years in the mid-1990s, Moser said. Fish and Game counted 7,878 male sage grouse at leks in 2006. In 2020, that number was down to 3,249. Those counts don’t include every sage grouse, because females aren’t flashy and easy to see and Fish and Game doesn’t count every lek. Still, it’s clear that the population has plummeted by more than half in 14 years.
“Hopefully we’ll come out of that,” Moser said. “But I can’t predict that we’ll ever see the numbers that we saw in 2005 and 2006.”
Moser said the bird hasn’t quite lost half of its Idaho habitat in the last 14 years, but there have been big losses. For instance, the 650,000-acre Murphy Complex Fire burned up hundreds of thousands of acres of sage grouse habitat in southern Idaho and northern Nevada. There are some birds still in that area, and Moser said sagebrush is coming back, but numbers there aren’t close to what they once were.
In Idaho, the biggest threat to sage grouse is fire. There has always been some fire in the sagebrush steppe, but it used to be infrequent. Historically there might have been a fire every 70 years or every couple of centuries. Now there are areas in southern Idaho where fire comes multiple times in a decade — much more quickly than sagebrush can grow back. Fires fragment habitat too, which isn’t good for sage grouse. They need vast expanses of unbroken sagebrush, and it’s better if there’s connectivity between those expanses. Sagebrush islands don’t do much good.
The sagebrush steppe and sage grouse didn’t evolve with this amount of fire.
“Sagebrush, sure, has always burned, but it did not evolve with fire like maybe mountain shrub communities or ponderosa pine stands,” Connelly explained. “There’s a difference. Just because fire occurs in an area doesn’t mean that the species in that area, plant and animal, are well-adapted to fire.”
There are a handful of reasons Western fires have gotten so big, frequent and devastating.
For one, there are more people on the land than there used to be, and those people inadvertently start more fires. Also, climate change is making the West drier and therefore less fire-resistant. Most importantly, non-native cheatgrass keeps expanding.
The invasive cheatgrass dries out early in the year, leaving tons of fuel out in the desert, helping fires spread. Cheatgrass is adept at colonizing disturbed areas, so in the wake of each fire, it expands, choking out the native species that would do a much better job of retaining moisture and slowing burns. Animals prefer to eat native species, too, meaning the often untouched cheatgrass builds up as fuel.
Cheatgrass has created a new fire regime on the steppe. The new regime helps cheatgrass, but it hurts the majority of native species that live in the sagebrush ecosystem.
Scientists often point out that fire isn’t inherently bad. Many Western ecosystems need fire. The sagebrush steppe ecosystem, however, has been so degraded and destroyed that virtually every fire is a blow to sage grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species. Only about 8% of sage grouse’s historic sagebrush habitat remains.
And not all of the Idaho sage grouse declines are explained by habitat loss and fragmentation.
“The trouble is the declines are occurring in places where we haven’t had fire as well,” Moser said. “There’s also something going on climate-wise. Why are we not recovering even in places where we have the habitat?”
The right choices
There are a few good conservation successes in U.S. history, and there’s none more famous than the bald eagle.
Back in the 1960s, there were an estimated 487 nesting pairs of bald eagles. The use of DDT, a pesticide, poisoned the birds, preventing their eggs from hatching and pushing America’s national symbol to the brink of extinction. The federal government made the controversial decision to ban DDT, and now there are nearly 10,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles.
Government efforts to help sage grouse — a symbol of the West — haven’t worked as well.
“There aren’t very many successes in terms of sage grouse conservation,” Connelly said.
Many of the federal government’s sage grouse decisions have been rebuked by biologists and conservationists. Some experts say federal agencies have valued oil and gas development, infrastructure development and grazing interests at the sage grouse’s expense even as the bird grown increasingly imperiled. Energy companies and ranching groups sometimes laud the federal government’s sage grouse plans while biologists and conservationists often deride them.
Connelly said that federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management often make decisions that do more harm than good. He pointed to a project the BLM is considering near St. Anthony that would remove thousands of acres of sagebrush as one example among many.
“They’re simply ignoring the science,” Connelly said. “They’re putting a premium on actions that are I suppose are politically correct, and ignoring actions that would be biologically correct.”
If you simplify it, there need to be two main areas of focus right now for sage grouse management, Soletti said. The first goal is to protect the habitat that’s left, and the second is fixing the habitat that’s broken.
Protecting what’s left means avoiding enormous fires like the Murphy Complex Fire and the Badger Fire. The best way to do that is to ensure the land is healthy beforehand, so it will resist fire as much as possible.
“Part of your job as a land manager is to manage these plant communities so that they’re resilient to disturbance so … they will be able to resist cheatgrass invasion,” Soletti said. “You’ve got to put in your work pre-fire so that when it burns, that plant community’s going to recover, hopefully on its own.”
Fixing what’s broken is what the Forest Service and BLM are doing in the Badger Fire burn area right now, flying on grass seed and then sagebrush this winter. Completely fixing the broken part fully isn’t usually possible, though. Soletti said there simply isn’t enough money to reseed everything.
Connelly said it’s sad and frustrating to keep seeing sage grouse become more and more scarce.
“It’s not a good feeling,” he said. “Once in a while, you’ll see a little bright, shining star. A biologist or a scientist somewhere that comes out and does something unique, or clever or adds something meaningful to the discussion and you think, ‘Well, maybe there’s some hope.’ And then you see something else and become more disappointed.”
Hopefully, sagebrush will grow back in the South Hills burn area, Soletti said. But even if the land rebounds here over the coming decades, sage grouse will need big changes if they’re going to persist. Otherwise, the icon of the West will keep disappearing, bit by bit, year by year.
Soletti remembers it being pretty easy to find sage grouse in Nevada, California and Oregon during his childhood.
“I grew up as a kid hunting sage grouse,” Soletti said. “In my lifetime — I’m not super old — I’ve seen areas go from … on a good day 400 to 500 sage grouse, to being lucky to go out to those areas and see sage grouse at all.”
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