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The greater sage grouse, native to the shrub-steppe ecosystem of Eastern Washington’s Columbia Basin, depend upon their brown, black, and white coloring for camouflage.
Unlike many types of birds, sage grouse live primarily on the ground. They are omnivores, eating plants and insects that live and grow under sagebrush and other shrubs and grasses in the shrub-steppe. As oligates to sagebrush, these grouse require healthy, connected sagebrush habitat to survive.
More on sage grouse from WDFW
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) estimates the 2015 greater sage-grouse population in Washington was 1004 birds (386 males counted on 27 lek complexes). The estimate was about three percent higher than the estimate for 2014. The slight increase followed four straight years of declines (35 percent overall decline from 2010 to 2014).
Historically, these large grouse were abundant throughout Eastern Washington. Today, only two isolated breeding populations remain; one in Douglas and Grant counties and another in Kittitas and Yakima counties. Sporadic sightings also occur in Okanogan, Lincoln and Benton counties.
Sage grouse facts
- While they may move short distances of a few miles, sage grouse are permanent residents and primarily spend their lives in the same place.
- Sage grouse have a very elaborate courtship ritual, the males perform a strutting display which can last for hours, visiting traditional “leks,” or courtship display areas, where they puff up big and beautiful for the females, like the grouse in the photo.
- Unlike other types of grouse that eat many varieties of nuts and seeds, sage grouse cannot digest hard seeds.
Sage grouse timeline from High Country News
The importance of sage brush and Washington’s remaining shrub-steppe
Due to their high dependence on sagebrush for survival, sage grouse are highly dependent on shrub-steppe for survival, they are unable to live in areas without a stable sagebrush population for food and protection. Growing towns, highways, and agricultural lands have invaded open shrub-steppe lands, leaving the sage grouse with a mere 8% of their historical range in Washington. The map shows historic range of in red, reduced to current range in green. As you can see, Washington’s green has shrunk drastically.
From 1970 to 2010, sage grouse populations dropped by 62%, to slightly more than 1,000 birds divided into two isolated populations. About two-thirds of the sage grouse are located in Douglas and Grant counties, while the others are located near Kittitas and Yakima. Neither population is large enough to be sustainable long term. Biologists estimate 3,200 as the minimum viable population of sage grouse to make it in the long term.
In 2015, federal officials are considering listing the greater sage grouse as an Endangered species. We are closely monitoring these developments and working on habitat connectivity and restoration projects, including the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Okanogan Working for Wildlife Initiative, that can benefit the long term recovery of greater sage grouse in Washington state.