The greater sage grouse love dance: Ride along as we watch this odd ritual

A group of us from The Wilderness Society got up hours before dawn last Friday to witness one of Nature’s great mating rituals—the greater sage grouse courtship dance.

Together with the Colorado Environmental Coalition we've been leading sage grouse viewing tours throughout the week to show media, government officials and members of the public how special this bird--and its habitat--is.

Not a journey for the faint of heart—this ancient spring tradition takes place in the far remote corner of northwest Colorado.

Fueled by glazed doughnuts and black coffee, our group, headed north of Craig in northwest Colorado, for an hour in the pitch black on increasingly rough back roads. With us that day were Deputy Director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources Bob Randall, a freelance writer from Steamboat, and a member of the Colorado Environmental Coalition.

Trekking for a half mile in the pre-dawn thru muddy sagebrush meadows, we learned this windswept landscape had been only days earlier covered in snow drifts. There, out in the “Big Empty,” is where the greater sage grouse—an iconic symbol of the West—still performs its primeval courtship dance.

A stiff breeze was blowing—with the bite of winter, but also the tangy promise of spring. When we paused to listen hard, we could hear this strange otherworldly sound coming from the gray beyond—like drops of water landing in a deep well.

Our destination was a bird blind carefully positioned at the edge of “lek”—the primordial mating grounds of the sage grouse. We snuck into the camouflaged trailer in the darkness like we were on a stakeout, hoping to solve a great mystery. Or at least witness one.

As we quietly opened the sides of the blind, dawn was ascending, and we suddenly had front row seats watching an ancient ecological pageant. Like performers on a stage, there were two dozen or more male grouse strutting – there is no other word for it.

Puffing out their ridiculously white feathered chest air sacs to make that “kerplunk” sound and spreading their tails in spiky feathered fans, they bobbed and weaved, had icy stare downs, and occasional feathered skirmishes—all for the attention of three modestly colored female hens.

For all that it was surreal, this performance was also strangely reminiscent of dolled-up teenagers posing in the high school parking lot. Shivering in our boots, we watched for well over an hour, cameras clicking and binoculars pressed to our rapt faces.

Leks are subtle to the human eye—this one was just a quarter acre clearing in the middle of a sage brush meadow—yet the same birds return year after year to this treasured spot. That is, unless the lek becomes an oil and gas well pad, or a gravel road, or a housing development. In some places, flocks of hundreds of birds still return to surviving leks; I can’t help but wonder whether this faithful crew of 16 used to have a lot more company.

Across their West-wide range, greater sage grouse have declined by an estimated 69-99% we are told, winning them the dubious prize of being listed last year as a “candidate” for protection under the national Endangered Species Act.

Colorado’s best hope for saving this flamboyant bird lies in protecting the state’s best remaining habitat, which is found in the Little Snake Resource Area managed by the Bureau of Land Management of northwest Colorado, along with adjacent ranchlands. Whether that happens or not has a lot to do how proposed oil and gas drilling is managed in this still-wild corner of the state. Already surrounding lands in Wyoming, Utah, and to the south in Colorado’s Piceance Basin, are seeing extensive drilling—and resultant declines in big game and other wildlife populations. The BLM’s near-final management plan for the Little Snake region is a step in the right direction. But emerging science indicates that more extensive habitat protections are likely necessary.

As the dawn gives way to a chilly morning, our voyeuristic adventure comes to an end. The three hens take flight away from their amorous admirers, and the males turn to feeding—until the grand spectacle begins anew tomorrow morning.

As we trudge back to our car in a now-pelting rain, I feel so lucky to have been able to witness what most people will only see on the Discovery Channel.  And I can only hope that we will have the foresight and restraint to ensure that this ritual can continue for centuries to come.

Photos:

- Sage grouse get nose to nose with passing four-legged critters. Photo by Sasha Nelson, Colorado Environmental Coalition.

- Elise Jones, Executive Director of Colorado Environmental Coalition, and others watch for sage grouse during a tour hosted by The Wilderness Society and Colorado Environmental Coalition. Photo courtesy Suzanne Jones, The Wilderness Society.

- Greater sage grouse strut their stuff in northwest Colorado. Photo courtesy Suzanne Jones, The Wilderness Society.

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