Monday, April 15, 2013

Are You Going to the Dance?

By Art Talsma, Director of Stewardship and Restoration

Thank goodness sage grouse like to dance. Male sage grouse "strut their stuff" by puffing up, creating one of the most memorable spring spectacles out there. Combined with deep music tones, their display is designed to attract females to the dancing ground. The males gather in remote sagebrush country throughout their native range in the western states. These gathering grounds are called leks. Just like the prom, the dance is occurring now. In Idaho’s good sage grouse range you may find 8-20 male sage grouse displaying to attract the sage hens to the dancing grounds.  If you are going to the dance, plan to get up at 4:00 a.m. and expect a long drive to arrive near the lek before sunrise. Bring a warm jacket, good field glasses and your camera. Soon the historic dance will begin.
Here they come! Sage grouse in flight. Photo ©Ken Miracle

So why are wildlife biologists and conservationists drawn to this spectacle and why are we so focused on the historical location of sage grouse leks? The birds are telling us where they want to be and where safe haven is found year after year for the mating dance. Leks are where they will begin their annual reproductive cycle. Hens nest nearby in the best available habitat to be successful. They hope to find safe brood habitat with an abundance of insects, forbs, and native grasses to hide their young while feeding. Most importantly the lek locations tell us where to focus our conservation work.    

In the Owyhee uplands we have learned that sage grouse avoid areas that are encroached by juniper trees. Juniper trees provide perches for predators like ravens, so grouse will not nest near them. Ideal habitat is a place where they can hide their nest under sage with tall native grasses. They need a wet meadow nearby to get their broods to water and feed. To restore sage grouse habitat, ranchers, land managers, biologists and volunteers are all working together to focus our conservation work in CORE areas where leks are concentrated in the landscape. These priority areas allow us to team together as partners in conservation. We do conservation practices that benefit both the birds and improve range conditions for all wildlife. We remove young junipers by a process called mastication—chomping up junipers and turning them into mulch-- or simply cutting the invading trees.

Art presenting juniper mastication at Josephine Creek. Photo ©Art Talsma/The Nature Conservancy
We protect and enhance wet meadows for brood habitat.  We mark fences that are close to leks so grouse are less likely to hit fences. We plant native seed and sage after summer wildfires. We control weeds and are working on innovative methods to control annual grasses.

Method to mastication. Art with Dave Bunker, designer of machine's cutting teeth. Photo ©Art Talsma/The Nature Conservancy
If you would like to learn more about these conservation practices there are a number of good web sites like the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI). You can even click on a lek and "like" it.

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