Sage Grouse hunting in decline for similar reasons as elk declines

The sage grouse population of Idaho has been in steep decline for years. It is now getting to the point where hunting has declined to a one-week season where hunters are limited to one bird a day. It seems a bit odd to me that there isn’t more outrage by the hunting community over this while there is an absolute furor over the very same issue with elk. This, like the elk declines in some areas, is due to a decline in habitat quality. With sage grouse the habitat has been impacted by livestock grazing to the point where the birds and their nests have become easy prey to raptors, ravens and crows who can easily spot them now that there is little to no understory between what little sage brush remains. With elk, livestock compete for forage in many places but in other places, like the Lolo, habitat quality and forage quantity has made them more vulnerable to predation by bears, cougars, and wolves.

Weeds are a concern in both types of habitat Cheatgrass and grasses seeded by the BLM, like crested wheatgrass, are expanding into areas of quality sage grouse habitat by livestock disturbance and other human activities. In turn, fire frequency has increased to the point where sagebrush cannot recover. The only remaining option for sage grouse recovery is to reduce or eliminate the most common form of disturbance which is livestock grazing and the associated human activities and infrastructure.

Spotted knapweed has crept into the Lolo area replacing forage and the forest canopy has closed leaving little opportunity for quality forage. The other impact of the closing forest canopy and hillsides with high brush is that elk cannot detect their predators as easily which makes them more vulnerable to them. The solution to this problem isn’t as easy. It will probably take another great fire and a long period of recovery for the habitat to support the elk populations it once did but controlling the spotted knapweed would be difficult, maybe impossible. The killing of predators there is just a political bandaid to cover up the real cause of the declines.

State reports decline in sage grouse hunters
Idaho Statesman


  1. Jon Way Avatar

    Why doesn’t the forest service do some controlled burns to open up the habitat for elk/grouse? That could alleviate at least part of the problem.

  2. Ken Cole Avatar

    I think they are doing some of that but I don’t think it of the scale that would make a real difference. Also, the ecoloogy there is important for other rare species like fishers so if there is a large-scale change there it might impact them. Do elk rate over everything else?

    Habitat quality does impact predator/prey relationships. High quality makes stronger prey or, in the case of sage grouse, makes it easier for them to hide.

    1. jdubya Avatar

      Do elk rate over everything else?

      yes, of course. Elk #1, deer #2, introduced turkeys #3, introduced sheep, etc. etc.

      If you cant shoot it and stuff it, what is the purpose of it even existing?

      But, of course, Elk are lower down the pecking order than cows and domestic sheep.

    2. Tom Page Avatar
      Tom Page

      Ken –

      I think a better argument can be made here for the decline of the mule deer in the west rather than elk. Elk populations are very high overall, maybe higher than they have ever been, with only localized declines. In contrast, Greater Sage Grouse & mule deer have been declining rangewide since the 1970’s. Anecdotally, I believe that the same thing has happened to the antelope populations in Idaho, based on my readings of Elmer Keith and Edson Fichter, but finding long-term antelope data in Idaho is difficult. It’s no surprise that all three species rely to a great extent on the sagebrush steppe. Sagebrush steppe lands have been sliced, diced, drilled, burned, roaded, weeded, chained, and generally ignored by most habitat people. So, to lay blame for all these impacts at the feet of the livestock industry is not entirely accurate.

      It is a very tenuous link to attribute these declines primarily to livestock grazing and describe the only remaining option for GSG survival to be the cessation of livestock grazing. How would you explain peaks in the GSG populations during the 1950’s and 1960’s when grazing pressure was greater than it is now? The only answer I can figure is that the range had very few preds around thanks to the government programs & poisons, but I’m not so sure about that. Also, climate change likely has as much if not more to do with changing fire regimes than grazing, I’d bet.

      Here’s another little anecdotal piece: I’m familiar with two current examples of private ground(one with a rest/rotation grazing system and one with no grazing at all) that have seen seen big increases in local GSG populations. The common thread seems to be forb production and sagebrush steppe rehabilitation through burning, mechanical means or altered grazing patterns to increase grass heights. The pattern of grazing seems to be far more important than the presence of cows.

      I’ve had the good fortune to spend a lot of time with bird biologists lately, and one thing that came out of those conversations is that there’s no magic formula for GSG recovery. I would agree with you however, that nest predation/failure, hen mortality and poor chick nutrition are what most of these scientists consider to be the biggest problems, and historic livestock grazing patterns have led to a great scarcity of forbs and native bunchgrasses (particularly bluebunch wheatgrass in our neck of the woods here in ID). This in turn has decreased breeding season residual hiding cover and summertime insect production.

      This summer, the sage grouse I found were in two places: up high near timberline (mostly males) and down in the tall irrigated grass, feasting on grasshoppers. In places they were so thick you could hardly walk 50 yards without blowing some more out.

      It’s worth noting here that the great majority of sage grouse in the west live on BLM land, not the Forest, since there seem to be some misconceptions on that in some of these earlier comments.

      And finally, I do think many hunters care about sagebrush steppe recovery, but it has more to do with mule deer than sage grouse. I don’t know anyone who’s satisfied with the way mule deer are managed in Idaho, and if steps are taken that improve mule deer habitat (those forbs and shrubs again…) we may see a corresponding slowdown in the GSG decline. I don’t hold out much hope for the Snake River Plain, however. That country is basically nuked.

      1. DB Avatar

        Tom Page:

        Rest Rotation grazing may benefit wildlife habitat in some circumstances but it could never be properly implemented by the BLM on public lands. There would be an enormous amount of additional fencing required which in itself would be deadly to sage grouse. There’s no hope the agency would properly administer RR anyway. I also think that introduction and spread of cheat grass is the primary cause of the increase of large sage-destroying wild fires. That’s more a fucntion of disturbance such as roads and cattle grazing than climate change.

        1. Tom Page Avatar
          Tom Page

          Is there a corresponding increase in large fires on the forest, which doesn’t have nearly as much cheat as the BLM range? If the rate of increase is the same across various habitats, that suggests climate change to me, rather than just the introduction of cheat. Cheat has been around for a long time here in the Northern Rockies, but these big fires seem to be a relatively recent phenomenon, when looked at the (admittedly short term) perspective of the last 100 years. Not to say that the cheatgrass isn’t a big part of the problem – I hate the stuff.

          1. DB Avatar

            There has and there hasn’t. Big stand-replacing fires, the likes of which we’ve never seen recently, burned the northern Rockies over a century ago. Even the Yellowstone fires of the 80’s were not out of scale with the historical size and pattern of fires in high elevation forests. Where recent fires have increased in size and intensity are in drier, lower elevation forests where frequent, low intensity fires were once common. Forest Service policy of suppression of those fires allowed for build up of vegetation and fuels which, the fire ecology folks claim, are the cause of larger, more intense fires there.

      2. Nancy Avatar

        +Anecdotally, I believe that the same thing has happened to the antelope populations in Idaho, based on my readings of Elmer Keith and Edson Fichter, but finding long-term antelope data in Idaho is difficult+

        Tom – I have a copy of The Pronghorn Antelope, and its management, by Arthur S. Einarsen. It was published in 1948 by the Wildlife Management Institute.

        The book seems to deal mainly with Oregon’s population of pronghorns – a neighbor to Idaho (Wish I could cut and paste from the book) but the Preface mentions that around 1935 the American Wildlife Institute began to establish wildlife research units at land grant colleges, which were to direct their activities toward urgent problems within their respective states.

        Oregon’s population of proghorns went from 17,000 in 1937 to 9,600 by 1945. “It was at this time that the proghorns were designated as a problem species by the Oregon State Game Commission” Got to wonder why the drop………

        According to the book, federal refuges for antelope were created in quite a few western states but not in Idaho, as of that 1948 publication.

        Lived in southwest Montana for close to 20 years and saw my first Sage Grouse this past spring (fortunate enough to take a couple of nice pictures of a male “strutting his stuff” with a few hens) Brought up the sightings to a few old time locals and their response? “Oh yeah, use to see them all over the place…… not anymore”

        1. Tom Page Avatar
          Tom Page

          Thanks, Nancy. I have that book as well. I wish it had more on Idaho. Edson Fichter’s antelope studies (and nice drawings & poems) were done from about 1962 to 1975. Elmer Keith’s observations center mostly on the 30’s, with occasional observations later on. Fichter’s study area has only a few antelope left, where there used to be lots. There are a few other sources that have some estimates, but I haven’t found anything comprehensive. One can always look at license and kill numbers, along with winter range overflight estimates, but there’s not the data that exists for other species.

          I wonder what management decisions result from being labeled a “problem species”.

          We’re lucky to still have quite a few sage grouse where we are, although the populations are in long-term decline.

        2. Elk275 Avatar


          I am suprised that after 20 you saw your first sage hen this year. I see them everytime I am hunting the Rattlesnake Hills area off of the Bannock/Grant Road, not that I hunt there much anymore. I am going to hunt antelope out of Dell this weekend and I should see some grouse. There are not as many as there use to be, but I can always find them if I look.

          1. Nancy Avatar

            Elk – I’ve seen fool hens frequently over the years and had two groups of grey partridges hanging around on the property for a good part of this past winter, a rare sight (the hawks & eagles were rough on them though)

  3. Ken Cole Avatar

    I would also add that the declines in elk hunting are nowhere near as great as with sage grouse.

  4. smalltownID Avatar

    Some accurate information here, e.g. habitat changes as a function of the fire regime. Definitely an oversimplification and lack of appreciation for complex ecological interactions though. I do agree there may be a common thread for impacts of habitat loss among the species where they are sympatric during some seasons. However, even sage grouse experts hesitate to attribute more recent declines to any single factor whether it be habitat and predation among other variables and their interactive effects. Fundamentally, sage grouse are sagebrush obligates (imo) whereas elk are facultative generalists so it is difficult to paint an accurate comparison between the two. I do agree that all wildlife need habitat and sometimes ppl forget that surprisingly.

    Also, raptors are not usually, if ever, nest predators. More and more evidence shows that some birds nest in close proximity to raptors for that reason and protection from other avian and mammalian nest predators.

  5. Ken Cole Avatar

    Eagles do take their share of strutting grouse from leo sites. If the escape cover is poor then the predation rate is higher. Ravens are definitely one of the biggest, if not the biggest, nest predators. They are subsidized nutritionally by cattle grazing and have increased populations in areas where they wouldn’t normally have high numbers. When I say subsidized nutritionally I specifically refer to carcasses of dead cattle and afterbirth from newborn cattle which they can survive on. Ravens also are known to overturn cow pies and eat the insects underneath. With more ravens and fence posts for them to perch on the nests of sage grouse become more vulnerable. In combination with a severely reduced grass understory from livestock grazing, the nests are even more vulnerable to predation by an increased population of ravens.

    Ending livestock grazing would reduce the spread of cheatgrass and thus reduce the fire frequency and slow overall habitat loss. It would also reduce nest predation by ravens by reducing the number of ravens and increasing the amount of understory grasses for cover.

    Like I said earlier, I don’t know what can be done to improve elk hunting in the Lolo. In other places reduction or elimination of livestock grazing would improve elk forage and, in turn, would improve the condition of elk and give them an edge over their predators. If you look at forage allocation in areas that are grazed up to 90% of the forage is allocated for livestock. That’s forage which could be utilized by elk, deer and other wildlife being given to industry and privatized instead of given to wildlife which is a public resource.

  6. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    I was photograping Sage Grouse from a blind several years ago when whey suddenly stopped strutting and crouched close to the ground. A Ferruginous Hawk came diving in at one of the males, who jumped sideways at the last instant. The hawk struck the ground so hard that it stunned itself. The male Sage Grouse all took wing and left the lek. The hawk sat for a few minutes to catch its’ breath and then flew off.

    1. Larry Thorngren Avatar

      I see I mispelled a few words. I learned to type on a manual Royal Typewriter years ago.
      I could rest my fingers on the keys. With these electronic keyboards, I type all kinds of letttersss when I do thatttt…………

  7. DB Avatar

    It seems odd to me, too, that there isn’t more outrage by the hunting community over the decline of sage grouse and severe restrictions on harvest. But sage grouse and sagebrush communities are just not that important to hunters or the public in general (besides, as Ted Trueblood once wrote: “If ostriches were legal game in Idaho, no one would hunt pheasants.”) The public just doesn’t care and that’s why the cattle industry controls and is able to abuse the public grazing lands. I do think that present forest service policy of letting more natural wildfires burn in the upper Clearwater will improve elk winter range and eventually increase elk numbers.

    1. Larry Thorngren Avatar

      It is harder to Shoot, Shovel and Shutup when the animal you want to get rid of is a thousand pound cow. The shovel part discourages most hunters.
      Most of the grouse hunters don’t know the various weeds and grasses and have hunted on overgrazed, degraded cow pastures for so long, that they don’t know what good Sage Grouse habitat looks like.

      1. Elk275 Avatar

        Most of the sage hens that I have shot have not been in the sage bush or what you would think of as good Sage Grouse habitat. Most were shot in alphala fields, I have even seen them shot in corn fields while hunting pheasants. Years ago I shot sage hens every fall; it has been years since I have hunted them. Many this week end when I am antelope hunting, I might shoot several sage hens if the opportunity presents itself.

  8. Jeff Avatar

    Sage grouse aren’t nearly as popular of as a species to hunt as are elk. To some extent I would put this on the quality of the meat. Sage hens aren’t the best of table fare, especially when compared to elk or pheasants and quail for that matter. In Kansas dwindling numbers of native Prairie Chickens both Greaters and Lessers get a lot less attention and demand than the Asian Ringneck Pheasant.

  9. Ken Cole Avatar

    My frame of reference for sage grouse comes from viewing southern Idaho and Nevada where the problems you have both outlined are demonstrated in spades.

    When you say that “Sagebrush steppe lands have been sliced, diced, drilled, burned, roaded, weeded, chained” as contributions to the declines in sage grouse I associate most of those activities as directly connected to livestock grazing in that habitat. The land isn’t “burned, roaded, weeded, chained” just for the sake of doing it, it is done primarily for livestock grazing, especially the weeding and chaining.

    In August I attended a BLM tour of areas proposed for habitat “restoration”. The BLM has proposed to conduct treatment only in areas with primarily native vegetation while ignoring those areas they had seeded to crested wheatgrass for livestock forage. It’s not restoration, it’s just more destruction of native vegetation that, I think, is intended to create more livestock forage while protecting areas that they have essentially sacrificed for livestock forage. They are only interested in conducting activities which won’t in any way impact livestock grazing except to increase forage. It’s dishonest and totally the wrong approach. They should be restoring habitat which has been converted to crested wheatgrass or annual grasses and leave the native areas alone.

    I used the elk comparison because it is the one that is being focussed on in the media the most. You are right that mule deer and antelope would make better comparisons to sage grouse but, again, it’s all habitat related and the politics of these issues seems to focus on the role of predators without looking at the role of habitat and how it affects that role.

    Back to sage grouse. I think you can lay the blame of sage grouse declines in the Jarbidge Field Office solely on livestock grazing and the associated activities since there is no energy production there as of yet. Wind farms are in the near future I fear. I think all of the major changes that have taken place there can be directly correlated to livestock grazing. Sage grouse are going to disappear from the Jarbidge unless the BLM makes the important changes that need to be made. They aren’t doing that.

    1. Tom Page Avatar
      Tom Page

      I can’t speak to the Jarbidge country, but in the Upper Salmon Basin, I haven’t seen any evidence that exclosures in areas with minimal precipitation have led to forb/bunchgrass recovery. Where I have seen adjacent seed sources and significant moisture, bluebunch wheatgrass recovery is happening.

      We do not have significant patches of crested wheat or cheat around here, so restoration efforts have focused on areas with older Wyoming sage and not much else – maybe some Sandberg’s bluegrass in between. As yet, these projects have centered on bluebunch recovery, along with other native grasses (Bottlebrush, Needle & Thread usually) but I’m hopeful that a project for Fall 2012 will include a good forb seed component.

      I would agree with you that BLM projects are designed to minimize the impact on available livestock forage – even in the short term. I think with cooperative permittees, this is changeable. All the more reason to have allotments in conservation hands.

      While the politics may be focused on predators, the staff people I talk with know that the habitat is a much larger issue. The agency energy has been directed towards habitat recovery, not sage grouse predator control programs.

      1. Brian Ertz Avatar


        Go take a look at the Doublesprings exclosure on the Pahsimeroi Allotment next to the Horseheaven Pass Road – which has been in place since 1961.

        1. Tom Page Avatar
          Tom Page

          Thanks Brian, I’ll check them out.

          Horseheaven is quite a ways off the valley floor & gets a lot more precip than the valley floor. There was lots of snow up there this past winter, when the riverbottom had none. The seed sources are a lot closer up there than allotments on the valley floor as well, so I’d expect those exclosures would have pretty good native grasses.

          Have you looked at the ones in the Upper Pahsimeroi allotment?

          1. Brian Ertz Avatar

            places with water will always recover quicker than drier areas … that doesn’t mean excluding livestock is not as effective at recovering habitat in the drier areas – it just means there’s less water – it takes longer.

            improved habitat as a result of “improved” livestock management in almost every circumstance equates to a reduction in livestock use. that doesn’t mean grazing improves wildlife habitat – it means reduced grazing improves wildlife habitat over greater use.

            many of us who have our fingers on the pulse with on-the-ground management are apt to downplay the lofty industry-sponsored promises which seek to implement management intensive grazing regimes.

            in the vast majority of cases they don’t work. we ought not broadcast those exceptions that may improve as rules in advocating grazing regimes as reasonable. they’re not.

            even for those with the best of intentions – like yourself tom – the reality on the ground demonstrates time and time again that livestock are found in trespass, subleased allotments go under-managed – and the condition of land is left degraded – wildlife get the short end.

  10. Tom Page Avatar
    Tom Page

    Brian –

    I’d say right now we don’t know that these dry areas will recover over a longer time frame – I have my doubts about that, and so do most of the guys I talk to. I have seen carefully done restoration projects show very encouraging results, and I’m much more inclined to go that way than to try and shut everything down and hope for the best.

    I don’t see how sub-leased allotments are managed worse (or better) than others. I could have a subleased allotment with six riders and good pasture control or one that wasn’t subleased that had no riders, terrible fences and worse neighbors. The worst allotments in our valley are not subleased.

    I also don’t think livestock grazing improves wildlife habitat – my feeling is that you can improve habitat and still have livestock grazing, if it’s done well.

    My observations on our allotments is that while we had our share of the problems you note, we’ve seen improvement or at least no decline on all of them, since we gained control two years ago. I’d also say that the ones with no improvement are not flat from our activities in the last two years – when you have no seed sources on poor soil that sees less than 7″ of precip per year and has been subject to 100 years of consistent stockgrazing, change is going to happen slowly, if at all (see above).

    I can’t claim credit for all of the following, but I could also mention increased elk wintering #s and excellent calf production, better sage grouse lek counts, zero predator kill, new bluebunch plants, new chokecherry plants, seedling cottonwoods and willows,increased streamflows (and all the benefits that go with that) through our allotments, etc…is wildlife really getting the short end?

    It’s not an open and shut case that the land is continuing to be degraded and that wildlife is compromised. Overall, it’s very clear that western wildlife is in much better shape than it was 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago.

    It’s my firm belief that the future of wildlife and wildlands hinges on much more than the fate of the livestock industry, much as many at WWP (or Idaho Cattleman’s Assoc.) would like to think otherwise.


Ken Cole is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He is the interim Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project.

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Ken Cole