Grazing & Grouse


Jim and I have noticed that sage grouse broods seem to be larger, and do better, in pastures where our sheep are grazing. Our observations are anecdotal of course, but we figure there are a couple of reasons why grouse do well with livestock grazing. The presence of our guardian animals (both guardian dogs and burros) discourages the use of these areas by predators while the herd is present. When our herds leave a pasture, the predators return, re-inhabiting that space until the cycle begins the next year.

The other important factor is the fresh manure from livestock that provides for a localized increase in bugs – important for survival of sage grouse chicks.

A new research project in southeastern Montana found that sage grouse did 
better in pastures with livestock grazing than in pastures without livestock 
grazing. Here’s some highlights of the research:

• Nest success was higher for nests in pastures with livestock concurrently 
present (59%) than pastures without livestock (38%). Researchers observed no 
direct negative impacts (such as trampling) of livestock on nesting sage grouse.

• Brood success was higher for broods hatched in pastures with livestock (79%) 
than without livestock (61%). The researchers noted: “The mechanism driving 
this is unknown; it may have resulted from behavioral avoidance of livestock by 
predators, or reflect predator control efforts in areas with livestock.”

• “Our results provide further evidence that livestock presence on the landscape 
can benefit nesting and brood-rearing sage-grouse.”

• Mortality to adult hens was attributed primarily to avian predators (40%), 
followed by mammalian predators (27%). No mortalities were attributed to 
collisions with fences or power lines.
• “Our results concur with research elsewhere that livestock grazing is 
compatible with sage-grouse conservation.”

The photos of grouse with cattle and sheep that accompany this post were taken on private land here in Sublette County, Wyoming. They demonstrate something the Montana researchers came away with: “Traditional family-owned ranching operations, the predominant local stakeholders in the Core Area, have historically managed land in a manner that is compatible with sage-grouse conservation and are 
well-poised to collaborate with wildlife and range professionals to maintain and improve sage-grouse habitat.”

The research was conducted by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management.

Cock Fighting, Naturally

It’s that time of year again: Greater Sage Grouse are gathering on their leks (breeding grounds), with plenty of strutting and displaying by the males in attempt to impress the females. I’ve spent the last three mornings on a lek near our home in western Wyoming, and today was the only day I’ve managed to get any photos. The other two mornings, I was “eagled” which is my version of skunked while fishing. A golden eagle came over the lek just as daylight was breaking, blowing all the grouse off the lek before I could get a decent shot.

The sage grouse cocks did plenty of slapping at each other this morning, but it all begins with trash talk. “What? You talkin’ to me?”

The two then strut around each other, taking measure of the opponent, before squaring off to fight.

The fight is furious for several seconds.

There were about a dozens males remaining on the lek, continuing their disputes, a full two hours after my arrival. Meanwhile, the hens had quietly picked their males and had melted back into the nearby sagebrush.

New range

We got the sheep herd moved to new range today. We’re in the foothills of the Wind River Mountains, and this private pasture is about seven miles from where a black wolf was seen in another sheep herd the day before. Federal control efforts on this pack of sheep-killing wolves continues. Wolves in Wyoming are federally protected, so federal officials have to be involved when there are conflicts. Rant is sporting a spiked collar to give him a little more protection should the wolf pay a visit to our herd.

Rant has been busy marking the new turf. His elbow joint is swollen with arthritis and he’s limping, but he’s got the heart of a lion when it comes to protecting his herd, part of which is seen below, checking out the sedge grasses in the slough that transects the pasture.

The herd shares the range with pronghorn antelope. Our ewes only have two teats, but pronghorns have four teats (click on the photo to enlarge). Can anyone tell me why? I’ve seen pronghorn triplets, but no more than that. This doe was drinking water in our driveway (runoff from the sprinkler).

The local sage grouse population in this area is BOOMING! Large broods are concentrated along irrigated hay meadows and it is a joy to see so many of these beautiful birds.


Every spring I try to take one person who has never been to a grouse lek out to see the sage grouse strut. This morning I took Haley out to a lek not far from home. We were driving in about 20 minutes before sunrise, rolling through the lek (which is adjacent to a gravel road), admiring the grouse as they went about their business, when suddenly the entire lek erupted, with grouse bombing out in all directions to get away. A magnificent golden eagle had entered the scene, like a cruise missile gliding just a few feet from the ground. The eagle didn’t succeed in taking a grouse (although a hen was in grave danger for several seconds). I expected the grouse to quickly return, but when I turned around to look again, the eagle had established a perch, so I knew the grouse would not return.

We drove about 15 minutes to another lek and enjoyed seeing a herd of pronghorn antelope standing atop a nearby hill, also watching the grouse activities below.

Legal cock fighting

I’ve spent several sunrises this week on local sage grouse leks. It would be a shame to live in such great grouse habitat without going out to witness the activities taking place on these traditional grouse leks (breeding grounds) at this time of year. It’s early in the breeding season, and the cocks are doing some intense fighting.

In corner one above, we have Handsome, an obviously superior stud grouse, looking to collect a harem of hens.

In corner two, we have Punk, a grouse that provides style inspiration to angry young people everywhere.

Handsome and Punk leave their corners and take to whaling on each other. The Greater Sage Grouse is the largest North American grouse. These are big birds, weighing in at around seven pounds.

The two birds in the photo above didn’t fight for long, but we watched two evenly matched cocks repeatedly go up against each other in intense attacks.

They threw legs at each other (grouse don’t have spurs but they have thick, stout legs). They slap the hell out of each other with their wings.

But what looked to be the most painful was when one of these two grabbed the other with its beak, and held on to a chunk of his chest while the fight continued. Ouch!

Jim and I kept our distance from these two fighters because they were so intense. They were still going at it when we left the lek after sunrise.

Just us chickens

I now have a close personal relationship with two broods of sage grouse, and Jim says I’ve got to end it soon. I know he’s right, but I hate to have to do that.

The two broods – one with five youngsters, and one with six, range close together and I started to see them on a section of state ground near an old loading pen at dawn and dusk, so a few weeks ago I started seeking them out. Of course they were alarmed to begin with, when I pulled up in my noisy truck. But I took photos through the driver’s side window, and talked to them, and they soon calmed. I was gradually able to get out of the truck and walk around them, and to sit on the ground in front of them. I talk to them in my human language, and they talk back in their grouse song. What floors me (and should probably embarrass me) is that I never realized how similar these grouse are to domestic chickens we raised on the farm when I was a child. They act and vocalize just like chickens. As a child, I had a favorite hen named Half N Half (she was half white, half red) who used to accompany me on short walks, and would sit on my lap while I read aloud to her. Yes I was reading to a chicken, long before reading therapy animals came in vogue.

My experience with the two sage grouse broods took me back to my childhood. I have been completely tickled when the adolescent grouse walked up beside me to check out the yellow thread hemming my pantleg, titling their heads to the side to watch a hawk fly overhead, being very vocal in song as they take dust baths, and preening their feathers, using a tuff of sagebrush to break the wind. The two hens are far more cautious, but remain about 20 feet away, strolling slowly around the edge of their broods, calling to them and watching me.

I haven’t fed these birds to make them tame. I’ve just been near them in a non-threatening way, and apparently it’s been enough to gain acceptance. I’ve had an extraordinary time getting to know and adore these interesting birds, and will soon start making myself go by them without stopping. They don’t need to know me, but it’s been a pleasure to get to know them just a little.

Spring strut

It’s official: spring has arrived in western Wyoming, as evidenced by the number of Greater Sage-Grouse on the lek I visited this morning. Leks are traditional strutting/breeding grounds for this biggest of our native grouse species. I usually set April 1 as my target date to visit leks, but with warm temperatures and most snow already gone from our sagebrush steppe, spring is early this year, and so are the grouse.

The photos I’m posting today are all of adult male grouse, which weigh up to about 8 pounds. (Sorry about the watermarks on the photos, but I’ve been finding my photos posted in various places without attribution or permission.)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently decided to list sage grouse as a candidate for Endangered Species Protection (the “warranted but precluded” ruling). Sage grouse in western Wyoming are still abundant. State officials estimate Wyoming’s sage grouse population at 207,560, far more than any other state. Idaho’s population is estimated at 98,700. Although sage grouse populations in other areas have suffered declines, grouse are still game birds available for harvest here.

No hen could resist this

Grouse leks are traditional breeding grounds that are fairly large open areas surrounded by sagebrush. Generation after generation of grouse use these traditional sites.

This morning, I went to what is usually a very large sage grouse lek to find only about 60 birds on the vast breeding ground. Last year there were a few hundred birds, and about two weeks ago, we flushed about 400 birds from the area. But since then, there was a snowstorm that dumped a lot of snow, and the lek is back under snow. I’m a few weeks early for peak lek activity, and breeding will take place through April.

It was cold this morning (just below zero) when I arrived, and parked away from the lek. I planned to walk in to photo range, but the snow was too deep, and when I tried, the snow crunched, making my tip-toeing sound like elephant stomps. Fearing I would disturb the birds in already energy-draining situation, I gave up and went back to the truck to watch and listen to the birds from afar. As the sun started to rise, I could see that as the grouse puffed the air sacks in their chests, they also released little clouds of steam from their beaks. First time I’ve seen that, so I really started to pay attention.

As I turned to leave, I noticed there were more grouse out in the thermal cover provided by thick stands of sagebrush. I was driving the noisy flatbed GMC feed truck, which emits a low rumble while it idles (teenagers love it), but was trying to be quiet. I saw two male grouse next to the road, and one wandered away into the brush, but the other stayed close.

I shut off the truck to watch, and the second bird started to leave. I turned the truck back on, and the noise attracted the bird, as he spun around to challenge the truck. He strutted and puffed out his air sack on his chest numerous times, making a drumming noise, tail feathers fanned out behind him. When I shut the truck off, he would calm back down and start to walk away, but if I revved the truck back up, he pranced again. Apparently the noise of the truck must be at the correct decibel level to be of interest to the bird – at least this individual bird.

I watched this male sage grouse for about an hour before leaving. The bird remained, obviously winning the battle against the GMC for breeding rights to that territory. What hen could resist something that adorable?

Here’s the handsome male grouse before he starts strutting and puffing:

The air sacks are starting to inflate:

If you click on this next one for a closer view, you’ll see the grouse’s beak is open:


Bird karma

I’ll do a bigger post about this very soon, but I spent a little time this morning on a sage grouse breeding ground, which is called a “lek.” Since I live in the sagebrush sea, and love early morning photography, I have a choice of about a half-dozen leks that are located fairly close to my house – this one actually straddles a seldom-used county road.

I arrived in the dark, shutting off the lights of the truck as I rolled into the lek, cutting the motor so I could watch and listen. The moon was full and I was hoping that I could be in a good enough position to be able to see the moon sinking over the Wyoming Range Mountains, with the grouse in the foreground. (Yes, I have strange goals in life.)

All was going well on the small lek, with grouse strutting and squabbling, posturing and prancing, and me patiently waiting as the sun began to rise and the moon began to drop.

I started taking a few photos, knowing full well there really wasn’t enough light yet for really good shots, but happy about it because I was in a prime position when we had just a little more light.

Just as that little more light was beginning to shine, the birds suddenly shot into the air, like drunken bombers, noisy wings beating the cold morning air. I frantically scanned the lek for the trouble. Ah there. Leisurely cruising about 20 feet above the ground came a rough-legged hawk. I swear that bird was buzzing the lek just for fun. I had to laugh, because the rough-legged posed little threat to these four- to seven-pound sage grouse.

I have been haunted by a rough-legged for about the past month. I think these are such beautiful birds, and absolutely cannot get a half-decent photo of one. We have one hanging out by the sheep pasture, and I see it every day. It seems to know when I have the big lens, because it takes flight before I can set the focus. When I don’t have a decent lens, the hawk sits on a fencepost and scowls at me as I drive by. I’m sure we’ve got some kind of karma happening …

Anyway, I’m off to another lek in the morning, and we’ll try this again.