The secret of sage-grouse

By Marit Gookin

Staff Writer

Elsewhere in the United States the greater sage-grouse is often considered a vulnerable species – but in Wyoming Game and Fish Wildlife Biologist Stan Harter’s district, they’re thriving.

“My district in particular is relatively intact habitat,” he observed. Sage-grouse require healthy sagebrush habitat; if the rolling hills outside Jeffrey City covered in gray plants tipped with green new growth are any indication, the sagebrush in Harter’s district certainly seems to be healthy.

In the spring, sage-grouse congregate in leks, gatherings where the male sage-grouse puff out their plumage and make calls to attract females. Throughout the spring lek season, Harter and his partner in science, a German wirehaired pointer named Libby, wake up a few hours before sunrise to go out and count sage-grouse. The desert roads, muddy with spring meltwater and deeply rutted by the traffic of off-road recreators and oilfield workers, are often too treacherous for the Game and Fish truck Harter drives. Instead, he uses the truck to pull a trailer with an ATV or side-by-side loaded onto it out of Lander each morning, unloads the off-road vehicle in the dim pre-dawn light and takes off, ready to start counting sage-grouse about an hour before sunrise. 

Game and Fish Wildlife Biologist Stan Harter surveys sage-grouse populations in his district every spring. (Photos by Marit Gookin and Stan Harter)

Harter explained that sage-grouse seem to choose the location for their leks based on acoustics; you can sometimes hear the low calls of the males as far as three or four miles away. The males use these sounds to draw the females into their display, which includes strutting back and forth, puffing up their impressive white chests, and inflating the two yellow sacs on their necks. Female sage-grouse aren’t the only ones impressed by all of this performance; sage-grouse lek viewing is a popular enough springtime activity that the Wyoming Game and Fish has published an online lek viewing guide and organizes trips to go see leks for those willing to wake up early enough. 

Having worked in this district for many years, Harter is familiar with many of the lek sites that sage-grouse tend to return to. “Sometimes, the sage-grouse will come back to a site that was abandoned 10, 20 years ago, before any of those birds were even alive,” he said. 

While he knows the locations of many leks and how to identify potential new lek sites, sometimes even Harter can be surprised. He told the story of once hiking to a known lek via a different route than usual, and rounding a hill to discover a new lek altogether. He also knows the history of his district; he is familiar enough with diary accounts of people crossing the area on the Oregon Trail to speak from memory about how they describe the deer and elk populations. 

Harter is also a member of the Wind River/Sweetwater Sage Grouse Working Group, a conservation group founded in 2004 that consists of a variety of local stakeholders including representatives from the Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Environmental Quality and the oil and gas industry, as well as hunters and other conservation groups. The group plans and funds various sage-grouse conservation projects, such as an ongoing collaboration with Fremont County Weed and Pest to remove cheatgrass from Government Draw, a project last year to rebuild a snow fence near Antelope Springs Reservoir, and reseeding sagebrush in the Gas Hills with the help of local school kids. Upcoming projects for the group include a plan to rebuild the fencing that helps to protect Diamond Springs near Jeffrey City, which could start as early as this summer.

Sage-grouse numbers in Harter’s district are up this year; the typical average number of sage-grouse per lek is somewhere in the 30s, but last Wednesday his counts put the number of sage-grouse per lek closer to 50, even this late into the lekking season.

“The birds were still pretty darn active,” Harter described. The moisture from this winter’s heavy snows and the recent rain will be good for the sagebrush this spring, meaning good things for the area’s sage-grouse population as well. “They’re doing pretty well,” he said. 

With annual lek surveys wrapping up, Harter and Libby have already swung into their next task. They’re now in Minnesota attending a moose conference along with other scientists from across the country as well as from Canada and Scandinavia, who all come together every year to discuss global moose populations and their habitats. “When I show them a picture of a moose out here in the desert, they’re always surprised,” Harter remarked.