Meet Five Species Counting on the Greater Sage-grouse

Sage with Fence

Sagebrush steppe. Photo Credit: iStock

Wind blows across the vast open space, sweeping the sweet scent of sage through the air. A herd of pronghorn swiftly move across the landscape, stopping now and then to feed on grasses and shrubs. Large eagles and falcons swirl in the wind high above the land, while small song birds perch on sagebrush. This scene plays out across the American West on a stage called the sagebrush steppe.

Sagebrush habitat once stretched out across roughly 153 million acres spanning valleys, mountains, grass-lands and dense shrub land. Today an estimated 106 million acres of sagebrush habitat remain.

At the heart of efforts to save the sagebrush steppe and the hundreds of plant and animal species that call these lands home is a small, brown, chicken-sized bird – the greater sage-grouse.

greater sage-grouse

Many wildlife species rely on the greater sage-grouse. Photo Credit: USFWS

At the end of September, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) released a final listing decision for this important bird. Thanks to unprecedented conservation efforts between States, federal agencies, ranchers, private landowners, and sportsmen and women, the USFWS determined protections for the greater sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act are not warranted.

Protecting the bird really means protecting over 350 plant and animal species. So, how we implement conservation efforts to protect the sage-grouse population is much bigger than the five pound bird.

The USFWS listing decision marks the beginning of a massive conservation effort. The greater sage-grouse is counting on us, and these species are counting on the greater sage-grouse:

Elk

elk

Elk. Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Steve Perry

Elk are among the noisiest hooved-mammals: new-borns squeal, bull-elk bugle, and herds bark to warn others of potential danger. Not only do elk communicate vocally, their bodies crack when walking so they can hear members of the herd as they spread out to feed.

Elk depend on sagebrush nearly year round. They live in the sagebrush steppe during the winter, and are known to eat brush buds during the winter. The animals often calve in sagebrush in late spring; the dense vegetation provides cover for the young during their first few weeks of life.

Pronghorn

pronghorn

Pronghorn. Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant David Grossmann

The pronghorn (affectionately known as “prongies”) are the second-fasted land animal in the world, topping out at speeds of 60 mph on the wide open plains of the sagebrush steppe. The animals also endeavor on one of the longest land migrations in North America each year, depending on wide open spaces like the sagebrush steppe to survive.

Mule Deer

Mule deer

Mule deer. Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Carolyn Malone

Mule deer are easily recognized by their large mule-like ears, moving constantly and independently of each other as a way to always be looking out for predators. (If you can’t tell them apart from white tailed-deer by their ears look for a white rump patch and a tail with a black tip.)

They migrate each year from high elevations in the summer to lower elevations in the winter months to escape deep snow and low temperatures. During the winter mule deer arrive in sagebrush habitat and survive by eating leaves, twigs and woody shrubs, including sagebrush.

Pygmy Rabbit

Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit Foraging

Columbia basin pygmy rabbit foraging. Photo Credit: iStock

One of the smallest species of rabbit in the United States, the pygmy rabbit weighs less than one pound. They have short ears, small hind legs and are grey in color.

The pygmy rabbit relies on sagebrush for shelter and food. During the winter – when not burrowing, the pygmy rabbit is one of two species of rabbits that dig their own burrows for warmth and shelter – their diet is 99% sagebrush.

Protect Sagebrush Habitat

Take ActionSportsmen and women: Urge your members of Congress to support full implementation of conservation plans to protect the greater sage-grouse and our outdoor heritage.

The conservation plans finalized by the Bureau of Land Management offer a lifeline not only to the greater sage-grouse but to the hundreds of plant and animal species that define the American West. Sportsmen and women know what is at stake if we miss this once in a lifetime opportunity to preserve our Western legacy through collaborative, bold and smart conservation efforts, not just for the bird but for all the wildlife counting on being able to call the sagebrush steppe home for generations to come.

Ensuring the future of the greater sage-grouse means ensuring the future of the entire sagebrush ecosystem.

Meet more wildlife living in the sagebrush steppe. Check-out the new report “Saving the Sagebrush Sea: An Imperiled Western Legacy”.

 

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