Last Dance of the Sage Grouse

Note: This article appears in the current issue of Dakota Country magazine, a monthly outdoors publication headquartered in Bismarck. I write a regular monthly article for the magazine focusing on the oil industry’s impact on the North Dakota Badlands. You can find subscription information on the magazine’s website, www.dakotacountrymagazine.com.

I’ve shot probably half a dozen, or maybe as many as ten, sage grouse in my life. I’m likely among a small group of North Dakotans alive today who can say that. And that group is not going to get any bigger. Ever. Because there’s an awfully good chance we’ll never have another sage grouse season in North Dakota. In fact, I’ve had a wildlife biologist tell me flat out this spring that he thinks within the next three years the sage grouse will be gone from the prairie in North Dakota. Completely gone. Here’s their story.

I grew up in southwest North Dakota, in a hunting family. Sometime when I was in my late teens, my dad befriended a rancher from the Rhame area in Slope County, who invited us to come and hunt sage grouse at his place. We did. (In an incredible coincidental set of circumstances, I later married that rancher’s daughter. But that’s another story. I told it a year or so ago. You can read it here if you missed it.) I don’t remember a lot of details of that first sage grouse hunt, other than it was the biggest bird I had ever shot—we didn’t have a huntable population of geese in our area in those days, and I wasn’t a turkey hunter then. We hunted sage grouse off and on over the next ten or so years. Those were my first real experiences with the North Dakota Badlands. I’ve been hooked ever since, not so much for hunting, but for the appreciation of the fragile ecosystem that provides such a wide range of outdoor experiences.

I had another one of those experiences this spring, when I traveled back to that same area to watch the sage grouse perform their Spring mating rituals. I had never seen that before. I can hardly find words to describe it. It’s one of those things you have to see to believe and understand. I got to see the ritual early one morning, thanks to the biologists at the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, who were willing to share a lek location with me and a couple of my friends.

We call it a “dance,” but it’s not so much a dance, as sharptail grouse do, but a “strut.” Males gather in early morning and perform for their hoped-for mates, spreading their spikey tails and puffing up the air-sacs in their chests to almost unbelievable volumes. I have never seen such a prideful display—pride well-deserved—in any other outdoor experience I’ve ever witnessed.

It’s a good thing I saw it. Because this spring the mood of biologists doing the annual Spring Sage Grouse Count was gloomy, and it may portend the unthinkable—the disappearance of another species from the North Dakota prairie.

Each year, in April, the Game and Fish biologists set up camp in Slope County, north of Marmarth, and spend most of a week visiting known leks to check on the population and condition of sage grouse. They’ve been doing it for 50 years. This year they counted just 31 male sage grouse. An all-time low. Down from a peak of more than 500 many years ago, down from counts of 50 to 75 in recent years.

The biologists had to halt sage grouse hunting in the state 2008 after the birds suffered a two-year bout with West Nile Virus. Prior to that, the season was a brief one, a week at most, sometimes just one weekend as I recall, with a limit of one bird per hunter per year, restrictions so limiting that few hunters actually took advantage of the opportunity to hunt.

Too bad, because it was a great hunt. It happened early in the fall, around Labor Day, when the weather was pleasant for an early morning hike in the Badlands. If you knew a friendly rancher, or had a good Grasslands map, and had done a little scouting, you could pick a dry creek bed or two to walk through, with or without a pointing dog, take a bird, and be back in Rhame for a late breakfast at the café.

Now, the population is so low that it may have gone beyond the birds’ ability to rebound. Because it wasn’t just West Nile decimating the bird numbers. It was the combination of the disease and massive oil development in the critical habitat range of the birds that led to a “perfect storm.” I spoke with both federal and state biologists after my return from my trip, and both said the same thing: West Nile Virus hit the population hard in 2007 and 2008, but at the same time, the fragmentation of their habitat range created huge reproductive problems for the birds.

“West Nile comes and goes, but the population recovers from that,” one biologist told me. “But when you destroy the habitat, they can’t recover from that.” He used the example of cutting your arm versus cutting your arm off. If you cut your arm, it will eventually heal, but if you cut your arm off, it’s gone forever.

Both state and federal biologists (I’m not going to use their names here, because they have jobs to look out for and families to feed, even though they all gave me permission do so) told me the critical problems now are fragmentation of the habitat and loss of habitat, caused by oil and gas exploration. One said that the sage grouse might be able to withstand one oil well per square mile, but in the critical habitat area of Bowman County, in many places there are three or four wells per square mile. The impact once you get beyond one well per square mile is exponential, he said. And then he surprised me with this: “Go ahead and use my name. I’m sick and tired of everyone walking on eggshells. This massive oil and gas development is bad for wildlife, and not just sage grouse. There are other species suffering just as bad.” Pronghorn antelope. Mule deer. Sharptail grouse. He didn’t mention them. He didn’t have to. We all know that.

I can verify his claims about the loss of sage grouse habitat and fragmentation. I drove for a couple of hours through the area I used to hunt, 50 or so miles of gravel roads. Once there was only one main road through that area, and no one used it at that time of the day but me, ranchers out checking cows, and the critters.  Today it is criss-crossed with dozens and dozens of roads and home to an almost unbelievable number of oil well and tank battery sites. It’s the area mostly south of U.S. Highway 12 in Bowman and Slope Counties. It’s the southern end of our Badlands, and it is well-hidden from the highway, so no one really realizes the massive—and I do mean massive—scale of the development. We drove past a wastewater recovery site the size of a small town, as big as the town of Marmarth, where we spent a couple nights. The truck traffic is beyond comprehension. It is no wonder the birds cannot survive there.

To their credit, the biologists are not giving up on the birds. The State Game and Fish Department has written plans to try to save them. The plans have two focuses: First, to try to conserve the remaining population and its habitat—survival—and second, to try to improve the conditions the birds need to grow in numbers—recovery. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with landowners to improve habitat in nearby areas away from the intensive oil development, trying to lure the birds to a more wildlife-friendly area where they might be able to survive, and even thrive.

There is much talk of listing the birds as an endangered species. That’s freaking everybody out—the state wildlife agencies, the ranchers, the energy industry, the chambers of commerce, and the elected officials in the states the birds call home. State wildlife agencies believe they are better equipped to deal with the problem on a state-by-state basis, rather than have a bunch of federal regulations slapped on them. Ranchers don’t welcome restrictions on what they may or may not be able to do on their own land, and especially on land they lease from the Forest Service and BLM. The energy industry and the industry’s allies in the chamber of commerce offices fear intrusive regulation of the oil and gas industry—and well they should, because that’s who’s causing most of the problems. And the politicians in these western states generally take up the side of the industry. Indeed, our own North Dakota Game and Fish Department director recently attended a meeting in Denver, a “governor’s-level meeting,” to discuss strategy that can be used by the states to avoid listing the bird as endangered.

In spite of all that, the ones we need to listen to are the biologists. But at this point, either because of, or in spite of, everything man does, the biologists say, “It’s up to the birds.” We’ll have to see if they can adapt to a new environment. Disease will continue to take a toll from time to time, and so will predators, although almost everyone told me that disease issues are fleeting, and predation is overrated as a problem for the birds. Fragmentation of habitat, and loss of habitat, will continue to be the biggest problems. Oil and gas development.

There’s a new normal. And the birds are going to have to adapt to that. If they can, they will survive and perhaps, someday, thrive. More likely, one biologist told me, “Within three years, we’ll see the last dance of the sage grouse in North Dakota.”

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2 Responses to Last Dance of the Sage Grouse

  1. I’ve been visiting sage grouse habitat in the Badlands for 40+ years. I’ve seen their populations wax and wane. But recently, especially in the last 3-5 years, I haven’t seen any in their usual haunts. Habitat fragmentation and loss is the leading culprit, from my personal observations, but decidedly non-scientific perspective. But, you don’t need a biology degree to understand what you see happen over 4 decades time. Sad deal. I hope the professional biologists are heard over the din of “progress” and find a way to help the sage grouse remain on the North Dakota landscape. They appear to be an indicator species. And all indications point to their impending disappearance.

  2. David Nix says:

    I remember in the late 1970s going into MN and observing these birds dance on their leks. It was part of an animal behavior course I was taking at UND. The males are beautiful birds and their competitive behavior is fascinating.
    This is another indicator that the natural environment in western ND is under constant pressure from energy development.

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