Feb 5, 2021 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Evan Rao | Illustration by Bibi Powers
The greater sage-grouse is a difficult bird to describe. Almost like a turkey, male sage-grouse have flamboyant tail feathers, a bulky form, and a confident strut. However, that is where the similarities end, as sage-grouse look like they are wearing a white feather jacket with two massive, bulbous mangoes protruding from the chest. Truly a ridiculous sight.
Once, sage-grouse were common throughout the American West, numbering in the millions. But over the past century, the sage-grouse have lost half of their original 150-million-acre habitat. Today, the sage-grouse is dying, and most people will probably never see a male sage-grouse strutting across its characteristic sagebrush habitat. So why should people care about a bird they will likely never see?
There are several reasons why anybody, particularly those who call the Rocky Mountain West home, should care about the fate of the greater sage-grouse. First among them is the fact that the sage-grouse is an indicator species. This means that the health of sage-grouse populations directly mirrors the health of its broader ecosystem. Dozens of living organisms, ranging from mule deer to golden eagles, rely on the sagebrush ecosystem for their survival. If the sagebrush collapsed, the American West would lose one of its most characteristic and charismatic landscapes. Conserving the sage-grouse is the key to preventing this from happening.
The struggle to preserve the greater sage-grouse has also come to represent the fight against harmful forms of energy extraction. The greatest threat to sage-grouse today is fracking development on the sagebrush habitat. Unsurprisingly, the Trump administration pushed to open as much of the sagebrush habitat as possible to industry interests and fracking.
In its first few weeks, Biden’s administration has begun to reverse these decisions, but the fossil fuel industry still has a powerful grip on much of the land in the West. Preserving the sagebrush habitat and the greater sage-grouse is an effective way to push for more sustainable sources of energy.
Finally, the greater sage-grouse is simply an incredibly unique and beautiful bird. Besides its strange and whimsical appearance, there is much more to love. In the spring, hundreds of sage-grouse gather around breeding sites called leks. Female sage-grouse stand around in groups, watching closely as the males make a strange, alien-like pulsating sound. This is their mating ritual, which attracts hundreds of spectators from around the world each year.
Above all else, it is essential to preserve the biodiversity of our planet. Without the greater sage-grouse, the West would be a far less colorful and unique place. Its status as an indicator species, its link to the establishment of renewable energy, and its beautiful and unique habits are all reasons to care about the greater sage-grouse, even if you never see it in person.
The Biden administration is making important strides towards protecting sage-grouse habitats, but the last four years demonstrated that no policy is permanent. The sage-grouse needs visibility and widespread support, which can translate into political action and public pressure on elected officials to protect their habitat. If enough people choose to care, perhaps the greater sage-grouse can continue to strut about the American West for centuries to come.