Mark Salvo, Federal Lands Policy Analyst
The history of the American West is told in the tales of those who traveled, lived and loved the land. For sagebrush grasslands, these narratives often included reference to, reverence of, or concern for one of its most charismatic residents: the sage-grouse.
The colorful history of the sage-grouse has been chronicled by Native Americans, explorers, settlers, government surveyors, naturalists, and in some of the most important accounts written about the West and the environment. Lewis and Clark first described sage-grouse in their journals in 1805 (Captain Clark even made a drawing of sage-grouse in his journal), and Rachel Carson devoted pages to sage-grouse and their habitat in her seminal book, Silent Spring, more than 150 years later.
The earliest indicator of the significance of the grouse on the landscape is evinced by the wide recognition afforded the bird in Native American languages. Many tribes utilized the sage-grouse for food and emulated the grouse in ceremonial dress and dance. The names they gave to sage-grouse are many and diverse, including “Seedskadee,” “Sisk-a-dee” and similar variants used by Rocky Mountain tribes (the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming is named after sage-grouse); tribes in the Great Basin called the bird “Ooˊ-jah” and “See-yook”; and tribes in California “Kōpˊ-te”; “Hooˊ-dze-hah,” and “Hood´-ze-ah´.”
Later, westward settlers frequently reported sage-grouse in their diaries, and depended on the bird for food in places where often no other game was available. Our names for places and landmarks throughout the Interior West today include countless “sage hen” and “sage grouse” creeks, basins, flats, hills, trails and roads in the West—further evidence of the species’ importance and historic ubiquity in the region.
Prior to the turn of the 20th Century, sage-grouse were still so plentiful that westerners described flocks that “darkened” and “clouded” the sky in Montana, Wyoming and Nevada. The birds were so abundant that they might have controlled grasshopper and cricket outbreaks, a phenomenon that taxpayers now spend millions of dollars to manage with insecticides. In one amazing report of sage-grouse from the late 1800s the observer compared sage-grouse to the “old-time flights of passenger pigeons.”
Unfortunately, however, the story of sage-grouse is also one of the species’ decline in the West. Sage-grouse numbers began to diminish with the loss and degradation of the high desert, the wide-open landscape most imagine when picturing the iconic American West. In 1916, William Hornaday of the New York Zoological Society was among the first to express concern for sage-grouse, publishing a pamphlet titled “Save the Sage Grouse from Extinction: A Demand from Civilization to the Western States.” Even before then, Oregon had reduced both the season and bag limit for sage-grouse in 1908, and by 1922 the state game warden worried that sage-grouse may become extinct in the state. Wyoming closed hunting for sage-grouse between 1937 and 1950. Other states also closed or reduced hunting seasons for extended periods. Although sage-grouse populations tend to cycle up and down, the overall trend was set.
While a number of factors have contributed to declining sage-grouse populations, Rachel Carson zeroed in on the federal government’s range “improvement” programs as a primary cause of disappearing sage-grouse and other wildlife. Beginning the 1950s-60s, and at the behest of the livestock industry, federal agencies declared war on sagebrush, burning, plowing and destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of the native vegetation in favor of non-native forage crops for livestock. Carson pointedly, and poetically, described the effects of these programs on sage-grouse in Silent Spring:
“One of the most tragic examples of our unthinking bludgeoning of the landscape is to be seen in the sagebrush lands of the West, where a vast campaign is on to destroy the sage and to substitute grasslands. If ever an enterprise needed to be illuminated with a sense of the history and meaning of the landscape, it is this. For here the natural landscape is eloquent of the interplay of forces that have created it. It is spread before us like the pages of an open book in which we can read why the land is what it is, and why we should preserve its integrity. But the pages lie unread…Along with the plants, animal life, too, [evolved] in harmony with the searching requirements of the land…The sage and the grouse seem made for each other. The original range of the bird coincided with the range of the sage, and as the sagelands have been reduced, so the populations of grouse have dwindled.”
The sage-grouse now occupies little more than half of its original range (no longer occurring in many places where Lewis and Clark reported seeing them), and current populations are estimated at less than 10 percent of historic levels. Although the war on sagebrush has generally abated, it still continues in some places. Oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing, off-road vehicle use, transmission corridors, roads, fences, and myriad other factors have also conspired to eliminate sage-grouse from the landscape, and may put them on the endangered species list.
The species’ plight has finally compelled the federal government to initiate a massive planning effort to improve conditions for the grouse. It is our hope that sage-grouse’s rich history in the West can help remind people of what the grouse once meant, and still mean, to America, and can motivate current conservation planning to do all that is required to protect and recover the species. We still have an opportunity to restore sage-grouse and their habitat so that future generations can tell their own tales about the grouse.