Who would ever have thought the once-huge populations of Oregon's greater sage grouse, would suddenly begin to vanish from an ancient domain, and be considered candidates for the endangered species list? What happened to cause this terrible decline? That, dear readers, is what a lot of people would like to know.
There were a few clues when the first reports came from a wildlife biologist at Oregon State University. When biologists looked around them, it became obvious: habitat destruction. This factor was literally driving the sage grouse out of house and home.
From 1988 to 1993, wildlife biologist Jan Hanf and researchers from the Prineville BLM office conducted a sage grouse study on Bureau of Land Management lands, including the Millican ATV trails. Trails used by ATVs ran right through a variety of sage grouse communities, which included ideal nesting habitat.
It took time, but finally Hanf found a scientific and political base with which to close off use of the Millican playgrounds. Recently, East Cascades Audubon Society members discovered other factors that may be affecting sage grouse populations, including West Nile Virus.
WNV has been previously documented in the sage-steppe of eastern Deschutes County. One human case was documented in 2016, while one or more avian cases were confirmed in the Wildhorse Hunt Unit in years past. No information has been collected on mosquito vectors (60 possible species) present on the High Desert.
Someone could test stock water, dugout playa water storage areas, guzzlers and other water sources to see if WNV is present in levels that inhibit grouse recovery. Some researchers feel that water sources concentrate grouse and carriers and possibly serve as a site for WNV transmission. It seems that with newer modalities such as eDNA there is an opportunity to determine whether these water sources benefit or harm sage grouse reproduction and welfare. Meanwhile, WNV testing could also be conducted on wings submitted by hunters at check stations.
ECAS also considered predators, asking: Do open water sources serve as predator sinks for grouse? Are guzzlers a spot where grouse can be predated or followed to a nest? All these concerns boil down to one huge factor that's slipped past range managers and wildlife biologists: The onslaught of managing the Great Sandy Desert for cows that began in the 80's, not taking into consideration the impact on sage grouse.
Tens of thousands of acres of native sagebrush, including Silver Sage—a plant that sage grouse cannot go long without—was destroyed and replaced with non-native grasses and the land made into grazing pastures. The land was sprayed with herbicides by the BLM and replaced by grasses for cows, which drove the sage grouse out.
Perhaps it was all too easy to forget that one part of any ecosystem affects another. Removal of sagebrush allowed increased predation by ravens and other grouse-eaters, caused the birds to crowd into what habitat was left, and perhaps increased the risks of WNV infection. Meanwhile the playas that became water troughs for cows also became habitat for mosquitoes.
Today, one can travel on the BLM roads through the Great Sandy Desert of Harney, Lake and Malheur Counties and witness what the federal government has done to accommodate cattle-raising, and how those schemes have impacted sage grouse survival and reproduction. All these factors have made it absolutely necessary that land managers collect every piece of data they can to make wise decisions for the future, and the Adopt-a-Lek program is supplying much of that missing data.
If you would like to get involved, this is your chance. Target count periods are March 18 thru April 1, then from April 2 thru April 15 and April 16 thru April 30.
The Adopt-a-Lek program organized by ECAS and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is not for the weak-at-heart. In some places the going is rough—but for those who take part there are rewards beyond description. Right off the bat volunteers will get to see parts of Oregon most people just dream about.
A "lek" is a large portion of wild lands located in the sagebrush country of Oregon's "Great Sandy Desert" where male sage grouse gather in spring to shake their fannies at their female counterparts—and each other—and literally get into the mating game. The whole idea is to count noses—or in this case, beaks—and see what's going on. The program is staffed by more than 50 volunteers, many of whom have counted Greater Sage Grouse on 100 leks for the past 11 years. Volunteers receive lek count protocol training and learn how to survey for new leks. Count information is used to estimate the breeding population and add it to the sage grouse database used by federal and state biologists, data sorely needed for management decisions.
To sign up for the adopt-a-Lek program
Contact your local ODFW office, or contact Lee Foster, ODFW coordinator of the Adopt-a-Lek project by phone at 541- 573-6582, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.