It’s dawn on a clear spring morning, and love is in the air — even if it doesn’t look like it.
Several mid-size male birds are facing off with one another in an annual ritual in which they vie for female companionship with a colorful and animated display, bobbing up and down and puffing out their chests using two large air sacs that make them appear almost comically bloated. Somewhere nearby, females are watching as they carefully determine who their mate will be this year.
This is the mating dance of the sage grouse, a popular bird that has come to symbolize the ongoing struggle and balance in the western United States between human development and the preservation of nature. In Utah and elsewhere throughout the west, there has been an ongoing debate for years whether the sage grouse should be protected as an endangered species, which would render much of its namesake sagebrush habitat off-limits to development.
Every spring in locations around Utah, male sage grouse fight for dominance and make elaborate displays as they try to draw the attention of the females, to the delight of bird watchers everywhere. Locally, East Canyon Reservoir and State Park is the most popular and well-known location for this show.
Greater sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse, both of which can be found in Utah are considered “lek” birds. The males establish a display area called a lek and defend small territories on the lek. The females visit the lek and select a male for mating. The female selects the nest site, constructs the nest, incubates the eggs, and raises the young without the help of the male.
Utah is home to two species of sage-grouse: Greater sage grouse, which can be found in the northern part of the state, and Gunnison sage grouse, which primarily live in Southern Utah. To thrive, these birds need large, relatively undisturbed areas of healthy sagebrush as well as other native vegetation.
Utah is home to about eight percent of the greater sage grouse in the western states. The state’s population naturally fluctuates, depending on the year. Currently, biologists estimate a range of between 16,000 and 34,000 birds.
Hunting of sage grouse is still allowed in Utah, but has become much more tightly restricted over the years. In the late 1970s, when habitat and populations were plentiful, Utah hunters harvested an estimated 24,000 sage grouse per year. Now, the annual harvest in the four open areas is around 1,000 birds total.
Greater sage grouse populations are declining across the western United States. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will make a decision in 2015 about whether to list the species as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
Officials in Utah want to prevent such a listing, which they say would have serious economic consequences. Utah is working proactively to conserve the species so that federal listing is unnecessary. Just last week, Gov. Gary Herbert unveiled a plan that attempts to strike that elusive balance between natural land preservation and economic growth.
“Many diverse interests have come together to address the challenges sage grouse face in Utah,” Herbert said. “The direction the plan provides will maintain or increase the number of sage grouse in Utah while allowing economic development to continue.”
He said the plan will protect more than 90 percent of Utah’s greater sage grouse through incentive-based provisions on private and school trust lands, and through reasonable regulation by federal agencies that manage land in Utah.
In early 2012, the Governor assembled a sage-grouse working group, which included county commissioners, federal land managing agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Utah Departments of Natural Resources and Agriculture and Food, the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, representatives from energy and recreational industries, and the conservation community.
The working group met throughout 2012 in open public meetings and received substantial public input. When finished, the working group provided a series of conservation recommendations to the Governor.
Director of the Public Lands Policy Coordination Office Kathleen Clarke led the planning effort and said conserving sage grouse will require a concerted effort by state, local and federal agencies, as well as participation from willing private landowners.
“State representatives and the Natural Resources Conservation Service are ready to work with private landowners who wish to conserve sage grouse in a way that benefits the landowners and the birds,” Clarke said.