BRIEF GUIDELINES FOR MAINTAINING AND ENHANCING SAGE GROUSE HABITAT ON PRIVATE LANDS IN UTAH

Jeffrey L. Beck (Lands Biologist) and Dean Mitchell (Upland Game Coordinator)
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
16 April 1997


INTRODUCTION

In Utah, sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) inhabit sagebrush habitat of the Colorado Plateau and Great Basin geographic regions from 6,000 to 9,000 feet in elevation. The largest populations of sage grouse are found in Rich County, Park Valley area (Box Elder County), on Diamond and Blue Mountains (Uintah County) and on Parker Mountain (Wayne County). Other smaller populations are found scattered in the Central and Southern parts of the state.

Historically, segments of all of Utah's 29 counties were thought to provide adequate habitat for sage grouse. Early pioneer journals suggest that sage grouse were abundant in the early 1800s. Today, sage grouse are found in 21 of Utah's counties.

Large fragments of historical sage grouse habitat have been lost in Utah. Losses and degraded habitat are attributed to agricultural and urban developments that have eliminated sagebrush. Intensive domestic livestock grazing has also contributed to a decline in sage grouse numbers.

It is estimated that sage grouse in Utah occupy only 50% of the habitat they once did and are one-half as abundant as they were prior to 1850. Annual strutting ground counts indicate an average of only 10 cocks per ground; a decrease of 51% from the long-term average. This population decrease in Utah is attributed to a decline in quantity and quality of habitat. Because of rangewide population declines, there have been threats by two conservation organizations to petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list sage grouse under the Federal Endangered Species Act.

Recent research conducted in Utah and Colorado suggest that two species of sage grouse inhabit Utah. All birds north of the Colorado River are classified taxonomically as being of the eastern race of sage grouse in North America. All birds found south and east of the Colorado River are thought to belong to a new species described as the Gunnison sage grouse. The Gunnison birds differ from all other sage grouse populations by being significantly smaller in size, exhibiting different breeding behaviors, and possessing specialized feathers. In addition, the genetic makeup of Gunnision sage grouse is markedly different than the eastern race of sage grouse.

Other recent research in Utah includes comparisons of strutting and vocalization behavior between distinct populations, the use of satellite imagery in determining the composition of preferred wintering areas, feeding preferences for sub-species of sagebrush by sage grouse and the importance of forbs and insects as a component of habitat.

Hunting is not believed to be a limiting factor on large sage grouse populations found in good habitat. The estimated annual harvest of sage grouse in Utah is less than 25% of the population. Approximate annual mortality of sage grouse is 60%. Therefore, Utah's annual sage grouse harvest is within the harvestable surplus.

The only way to avoid Federal listing of sage grouse is to protect and enhance their habitats. The remainder of this document discusses critical habitats and ways to safeguard and maintain them.

HABITAT REQUIREMENTS

Sage grouse occur only in the sagebrush-steppe of western North America. Sagebrush and sagebrush habitat are essential for survival of sage grouse populations. Sage grouse have specialized digestive systems. They lack a muscular gizzard, which limits their diets to soft foods (Patterson 1952).

Important areas of sagebrush rangeland that need to be protected and can be enhanced to provide optimal habitat for sage grouse include: strutting grounds, water sources (springs, seeps, creeks, and livestock water developments), wet meadows, forb-dominated meadows, and south and west-facing ridges and slopes where grouse are known to winter.

Food

Food habits of adult sage grouse change on a seasonal basis; however, sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) leaves are eaten throughout the year. Their dependence on sagebrush, primarily big sagebrush

(A. tridentata), reaches a peak from October through April when sagebrush leaves constitute the entire diet. In May, sage grouse diets change from being dominated by sagebrush to being dominated by forbs; in September diets switch back from forbs to sagebrush (Braun et al. 1977).

Juvenile sage grouse feed on insects and succulent forbs after hatching and up until brood dispersal in the fall. Broods will relocate to forb-rich areas during the summer (Wallestad 1971). Peterson (1970) reported insects composed 60% of 1-week-old sage grouse chick diets and declined to 5% of the diet of 12-week-old chicks in central Montana. Insects commonly eaten by sage grouse chicks include grasshoppers, beetles, and ants (Johnson and Boyce 1990).

Cover

Sagebrush-dominated rangelands provide habitat for all life history requirements (i.e., cover, reproduction [strutting grounds], nesting, brood-rearing, and winter habitat) of sage grouse (Braun et al. 1977). Chemical and mechanical sagebrush treatments usually increase grass density and biomass. Grasses out compete shrubs and perennial forbs used by sage grouse for food and cover. Thus, sagebrush reduction efforts often reduce or even eliminate sage grouse populations.

Strutting grounds or leks are considered to be the center of sage grouse activities. It is imperative that sage grouse leks be protected. Sage grouse prefer open areas surrounded by sagebrush to strut on. The majority of nesting and brood-rearing activities occur within 2 miles (3 km) of a lek (Braun et al. 1977). Sage grouse have been known to establish new leks on recently disturbed sites (e.g., burns, gravel pits, and domestic sheep salting areas) (Connelly et al. 1981, Hulet 1983); however, sage grouse do not readily accept new strutting areas once existing grounds are destroyed .

Braun et al. (1977) summarized results from several sage grouse nesting studies and concluded that hens most frequently selected nesting sites in sagebrush stands containing 20-40 % canopy coverage. According to Braun et al. (1977), sage grouse hens in several studies normally selected the tallest shrubs at a site to nest under. The height of sagebrush commonly used varied from 7 (17 cm) to 31 (79 cm) inches. Sage grouse broods often feed in areas with lower sagebrush canopy cover and rest in areas with a higher canopy cover of sagebrush. Autenrieth (1976) reported that average canopy at brood feeding sites was 10.4% and 30% at loafing sites.

Sage grouse prefer stands of sagebrush of at least 20% canopy cover for winter habitat (Hulet et al. 1984). Differences in topography, vegetative cover, and weather may limit sage grouse to inhabit less than 10% of sagebrush-dominated ranges in winter. Some sage grouse populations are sedentary where suitable habitat remains year-round. Other populations must migrate to areas where suitable sagebrush habitat exists above winter snow levels (Hupp and Braun 1989). For example, sage grouse that spend summers in north-central Utah's Strawberry Valley migrate 15-20 miles (24.1-32.2 km) to winter in suitable habitat (Welch et al. 1990).

RECOMMENDATIONS (Partially adapted from Braun et al. 1977:104)

1. Areas with less than 20% live sagebrush cover or on steep (20% or more gradient) upper slopes with skeletal soils where big sagebrush is 12 inches (30 cm) or less in height will not be subjected to treatments designed to remove sagebrush.

2. A 2 mile (3 km) radius area around all leks will be designated a grouse breeding complex. No sagebrush will be treated within this buffer zone.

3. Sagebrush control will not be attempted in areas known to have supported wintering concentrations of sage grouse within the past 10 years.

4. No sagebrush control will be attempted along streams, meadows, or secondary drainages (dry and intermittent). A 328-ft (100 m) strip (minimum) of living sagebrush will be retained on each edge of meadows and drainages.

5. When sagebrush control is absolutely unavoidable in sage grouse range, all treatment measures should be applied in irregular patterns using topography and other ecological considerations. Widths of treated and untreated areas can vary for the convenience of application technique; except, treated areas will not be wider than 100 ft (30 m) and untreated areas will be at least as wide as treated areas.

6. Range seedings will focus on establishment of forbs (Table 1) and subspecies of big sagebrush (A. tridentata spp.) (Table 2). Grasses (Table 3) that do not outcompete beneficial forbs and shrubs should be considered in seeding mixtures. Soil type, elevation, and amount of precipitation (Table 2) should be considered when determining suitability of plant materials to various locations.

7. When practical, big sagebrush root stock rather than seed should be planted to increase survivability.

8. Seedings designed to solely increase grass production are discouraged. Seedings that contain a mixture of perennial grasses and forbs and big sagebrush are preferred.

9. Insecticides should not be applied in brood-rearing areas until after the critical period (1 September) of chick insect-consumption.

10. Fences should be erected around water sources and wet meadows existing in brood-rearing areas to restrict livestock, thereby protecting vulnerable forbs.

11. Livestock grazing should be managed to allow optimum growth of forbs and grasses.


LITERATURE CITED

Autenrieth, R. E. 1969. Impact of strip spray on vegetation and sage grouse use on summer habitat. Proc. Biennial Western States Sage Grouse Workshop. 6:147-157.

Braun, C. E., T. Britt, and R. O. Wallestad. 1977. Guidelines for maintenance of sage grouse habitats. Wildl. Soc. Bull. 5:99-106.

Connelly, J. W., W. J. Arthur, and O. D. Markham. 1981. Sage grouse leks on recently disturbed sites. J. Range Manage. 34:153-154.

Hulet, B. V. 1983. Selected responses of sage grouse to prescribed fire, predation and grazing by domestic sheep in southeastern Idaho. M. S. Thesis, Brigham Young, Univ., Provo, Ut. 64 pp.

Hulet, B. V., J. T. Flinders, J. S. Green, and R. B. Murray. 1984. Seasonal movements and habitat selection of sage grouse in southern Idaho. Symp.: Biology of Artemisia and Chrysothamnus, Provo, Ut, July 9-13, 1984. 168-175 pp.

Hupp, J. W. and C. E. Braun. 1989. Topographic distribution of sage grouse foraging in winter. J. Wildl. Manage. 53:823-829.

Johnson, G. D. and M. S. Boyce. 1990. Feeding trials with insects in the diet of sage grouse chicks. J. Wildl. Manage. 54:89-91.

Patterson, R. L. 1952. The sage grouse in Wyoming. Sage books, Inc., Denver. 341 pp.

Peterson, J. G. 1970. The food habits and summer distribution of juvenile sage grouse in central Montana. J. Wildl. Manage. 34:147-155.

Wallestad, R. O. 1971. Summer movements and habitat use by sage grouse broods in central Montana. J. Wildl. Manage. 35:129-136.

Welch, B. L., F. J. Wagstaff, and R. L. Williams. 1990. Sage grouse status and recovery plan for Strawberry Valley, Utah. U. S. For. Serv. Res. Pap. INT-RP-430. 10 pp.

Welsh, S. L., N. D. Atwood, S. Goodrich, and L. C. Higgins, eds. 1993. A Utah flora. Second ed., rev. Print Services, Brigham Young Univ., Provo, Ut. 986 pp.

APPENDIX

Table 1. Forbs to be considered in seedings for sage grouse. Some forbs hold potential as food as well as providing habitat for insects eaten by grouse.

Common Name Scientific Namea Notes
Forbs
Alfalfa Medicago sativa Preferred
Balsamroot Balsamorhiza spp. Potential
Clovers Trifolium spp. Potential
Dandelion Taraxacum officinale Preferred; a weedy forb
Goatsbeard Tragopogon dubius Preferred; a weedy forb
Lupines Lupinus spp. Preferred
Mountain dandelion Agoseris glauca Preferred
Penstemons Penstemon spp. Potential
Prickly lettuce Lactuca serriola Preferred
Sainfoin Onobrychis viciifolia Potential
Sego lily Calochortus spp. Preferred
Small burnet Sanguisorba minor Potential
Vetches and locos Astragalus spp. Preferred
Western yarrow Achillea millefolium Preferred
Yellow sweet-clover Melilotus officinalis Preferred; a weedy forb

a Scientific names from Welsh et al. (1993).

Table 2. Big sagebrush (A. tridentata) subspecies available for planting in sage grouse habitat.

Common Name Scientific Namea Suitability
Elevation (ft) Precipation
Big (basin) tridentata 4,000-7.900
Vasey's (mountain) vaseyana 9,400-10,000
Wyomingb wyomingensis 5,000-7,000

a Subspecies scientific names from Welsh et al. (1993).
b Wyoming big sagebrush is more palatable to sage grouse and big game than basin big sagebrush. In addition, Wyoming big sagebrush seed and root stock is easy to obtain from commercial sources.

Table 3. Grasses to be considered in seedings for sage grouse. These species from 1997 Utah Conservation Reserve Program seed list designed for birds.

Common Name Scientific Namea Notes
Introduced Grasses
Bromegrass Bromus spp. Sod-forming
Orchardgrass Dactylis glomerata Sod-forming
Perennial mountain rye Secale montanum
Pubescent wheatgrass Elymus trachycaulus Sod-forming
Russian wildrye Elymus junceus
Tall wheatgrass Elymus elongatus Sod-forming
Native Grasses
Bluebunch wheatgrass Elymus spicatus
Thickspike wheatgrass Elymus lanceolatus Sod-forming

a Scientific names from Welsh et al. (1993).


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