Decreasing The Habitat Risks Of Utah’s Southern Sage-Grouse on Wild About Utah

Jul 6, 2018

In the past decade, over 45,000 acres of land in southern Utah have had conservation treatments by removing the encroaching pinyon-juniper forest and allowing the native grasses and sagebrush to return.

With the use of GPS units, scientists and manager are able to witness the positive impacts these treatments are having on Utah’s Greater sage-grouse population.  They monitor the movement patterns of the grouse and determine how the birds use their seasonal habitats throughout the year.  

Female and male grouse have similar habitat needs during the winter, but choose different landscapes when their needs change during the nesting and chick-rearing seasons.

Wildlife managers call the grouse a “landscape species” because they have to manage a variety of different communities for the grouse to thrive. 

During the months of January and February when the habitat is at its coldest, females and males have the same needs - to stay warm, find food, and avoid predators. 

Fortunately, sagebrush provides the resources to meet all these needs.

While grouse huddle under the brush for protection from frigid winds, deepening snow and roaming predators, they avoid having to search for food since the bulk of their nourishment comes from the leaves of the sagebrush.  The grouse simply reach up, nibble on the leaves, and remain safe in their protective sagebrush tent.

When they have consumed all the leaves from one bush, they simply move to another sagebrush.

In the spring, the needs of the females change dramatically.  Once their chicks have hatched the females search for a moist place where the chicks can eat a variety of bugs and green vegetation to receive the necessary nutrients for fast growth.

By fall, the chicks are grown and the adult females return to the dry sagebrush habitat and prepare for winter.

The biggest struggle sage grouse have in the southern region is a fragmented habitat.  They have to fly dangerous distances to reach the variety of habitats they need.

Nick Frey, extension associate professor in the Department of Wildland Resources at USU, has researched sage grouse for the past 13 years.  She explains this struggle, ”To get to the next tiny pocket of habitat [the grouse] have to fly over forests and high ridges, which endanger their lives.  Prior to the treatments, it was difficult for me to have a bird stay alive for an entire year,  now I have birds I have tracked for more than three years…They’re able to find better resources and healthier habitats without putting themselves at risk so often.”

One of the first conservation treatments occurred in Sink Valley in 2005. 

Prior to this, female Greater sage-grouse in Sink Valley would spend the summers in the agricultural fields south of Alton, which was laced with danger.  A couple of times grouse got bailed up and researchers would find the transmitters in a hay bale.  At other times, an eagle would carry off birds and the transmitter would be found with a hole in the side from the eagle’s claw.  

Within two years after the Sink Valley treatment, researchers stopped finding females anywhere close to the agricultural fields.  The sage grouse were now able to find grasses and forbs in close proximity to their nests. 

Rhett Boswell, Habitat Biologist at Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, who created management tools using Frey’s GPS data explains, “With this GPS [data] we have learned so much, it keeps opening up new opportunities to refine our management prescriptions.  With this best available science, we can identify which management treatments have the greatest positive impact and create resource selection models to plan future management.”

In other words, the future of Utah’s Greater Sage-Grouse is looking bright.