The Sublette County Journal
Volume 4, Number 35 - 4/27/00
brought to you online by Pinedale Online
Springtime means sage grouse strut, biologists bustle
by Rob Shaul
"They show up every day, and do their thing everyday, regardless if anyone's paying attention or not," says Wyoming Game & Fish Biologist Doug McWhirter. It's 6:15 a.m., and Doug and I are sitting in his dark green WG&F truck on a lonely road on the Mesa, watching 147 sage grouse roosters on the Mesa's largest sage grouse lek strut and bellow.
Mr. McWhirter visits three leks on the Mesa three times each year between early March and late April to count sage grouse. He counts all the birds on each lek each visit, but as the days move on, fewer and fewer females show up. Because roosters are so much more visible, the G&F uses the average number of males at each lek to help gauge population trends. Mr. McWhirter says the agency doesn't make population estimates for sage grouse like it does for big game, because it can only guess the numbers of females from the observed number of males.
Traffic & Noise
The lek we're watching is located along one of the main Mesa roads. Doug explains that the grouse choose openings with sage along the edges for cover for their leks, and consequently "roads are perfect." The roads themselves don't seem to impact the strutting, says Doug. "It's the traffic going up and down roads that displace them."
The roosters busy strutting this morning seem mostly oblivious to Doug's green truck. "The males hardly care," he explains. "You can drive right through the males."
Leks also seem to be affected by noise, continues Mr. McWhirter. During the 1950s and 1960s, there were several leks along Highway 191 between Rock Springs and Pinedale. Back then, says Doug, much of the road was still a dirt road, and there was much less traffic. A couple of years ago, the Game & Fish re-traced the old routes and found that all of the historical leks within two miles of the highway had been abandoned, but several further away were still active. Doug says this seems to support the theory that sage grouse leks are adversely affected by noise. "It makes sense, because while the males strut they make a booming sound and that's how the females find the lek and go there to breed," he says. If the females can't hear the males' booming, they won't be able to find the lek and fewer and fewer birds will show up, eventually abandoning the lek altogether.
On the other hand, Doug says new leks are created. Roosters may visit more than one lek each strutting period, and people have had some success moving sage grouse leks using silhouettes and vocalizations of strutting birds.
Also, many main leks have "satellite" leks located near them. While there may be 50 or 60 birds strutting at the main lek, a satellite lek nearby may have 10-12 roosters strutting on it. Doug says it's possible one of the satellite leks may evolve into the main lek over time. He adds that every year, the Game & Fish finds 2-4 new leks. He's not sure this is the result of looking harder, old leks being displaced, or increasing sage grouse numbers.
The sight of 150 rooster sage grouse strutting at this particular lek is both amazing and amusing. The birds are scattered along the east side of the road for about 200 yards. Each strutting rooster puffs out its white-feathered chest and fans out its raised tail feathers. Hidden beneath the chest feathers are two yellow air sacks, which the rooster inflates, then sharply exhales with a moderately loud "bloop" sound. Between "bloops," the rooster swings back its shoulders to puff out its chest, causing the feathers to stroke its chest and produce a soft "swish" sound. The result is a "swish" followed closely by a "bloop." With the 150 roosters making this same combination of sound the air is full of "swishes" and "bloops" all jumbled together.
Doug listens, and smiles. "Sage grouse males in the fall are big, but they look nothing like they do now," he says admiringly. "In preparation for the strutting period they develop these huge air sacs on their chests and physiologically go through some pretty massive changes. Sometimes they don't look like birds at all. It's just a remarkable thing. It's kind of the vindication of spring here for me."
Three Lucky Birds
Each rooster has its own small territory which it defends as its own strutting ground. We watch a lone hen meander through all these strutting males, each puffing out its chest and making its "blooping" sound several times as she comes near. Doug says that when there are a lot of females on the lek early during the strutting period, they will all be clumped around two or three roosters who do all of the breeding, to the dismay of the 100 other roosters strutting their stuff. He calls these lucky roosters "master cocks," and has no idea why the hens favor these particular roosters over all the others. "They all look the same to me," he says.
"Most of the females breed in late March," Doug says. As soon as they breed, the hens fly off to their nesting sites, generally 2-3 miles from the lek. The first time Doug visited this lek, in late March, the biologist counted 119 males and 120 female grouse. On this particular day, 147 roosters compete for breeding privileges with just three hens wandering the lek.
The diminishing odds for the roosters doesn't seem to get their spirits down. They show up every day through April to strut for the few, if any, females who haven't been bred already.
When I comment that all these males and very few females remind me of the Pinedale bar scene Doug smiles and says, "People always make that comparison. All those males strutting around and the few females looking disinterested."
It would seem, with the leks being used every year and the sage grouse roosters being so vulnerable during their strutting, that predators would be attracted to the leks for easy meals this time of year. But for whatever reason, this isn't the case, at least for coyotes and bobcats, says Doug.
Raptors, however, do get their share of strutting roosters. Last year, several people checking leks found some were visited by golden eagles. "You'd pull up to a lek and there'd be a golden eagle chomping on a male sage grouse," says Doug. "No other grouse would be around because they'd all fly off when their buddy got munched." However, there have been no reports of raptors on leks this year.
The raptor threat is the reason the BLM requires a quarter-mile buffer zone with no surface occupancy around sage grouse leks. Power poles or condensate tanks could be used as perches by raptors, says Doug.
Grouse Numbers Increasing
Several environmental groups are working to petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this year to list the sage grouse as a threatened and/or endangered species. Listing the sage grouse could have significant impacts on oil and gas activity and grazing on the sagebrush ranges in Sublette County. The official position of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is that sage grouse populations, while seriously depressed, can be properly managed without federal listing as threatened or endangered.
According to Mr. McWhirter, we have sage grouse leks ranging from as far north as the Warren Bridge, down both sides of the basin, all the way to the county line in the south.
Doug remembers that when he first began working in Pinedale in the early 1990s, hunters used to travel to the county and hunt sage grouse out of wall tents during Labor Day weekend. Not anymore. Mr. McWhirter says the sage grouse population decreased significantly along with deer and antelope in 1992-93, but numbers have been growing since then. The G&F has continued to offer a hunting season for the grouse throughout this period.
"This is one of those things that you wish everybody could see and experience," says Mr. McWhirter, as sage grouse roosters welcome the sunrise with swishes and bloops. "But if they did, it probably wouldn't be around long."
Photo credits: Photo courtesy John Dahlke, Wyoming Wildlife Consultants, Photo courtesy John Dahlke, Wyoming Wildlife Consultants
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