The Umbrella Bird
Biologists call the sage grouse an “umbrella species.” By conserving the varied and big country sage grouse need, many kinds of birds and animals also stand to benefit – from pygmy rabbits and sage sparrows to mule deer, elk and pronghorn. They take shelter “under the umbrella.” More than 350 species of sagebrush-associated plants and animals are now identified as species of conservation concern.
One other member of the grouse family, the sharp-tailed grouse overlaps its habitat in the sagebrush-steppe. Sharp-tails tend to like steeper more mountainous country
In addition to sage grouse, a handful of other wildlife species are completely dependent on sagebrush for survival. We call them sagebrush “obligates.” They are: pronghorn, pygmy rabbit, sagebrush vole, sage sparrow, Brewer’s sparrow, and sage thrasher. They’re dependent either because they eat sagebrush and/or they need the sagebrush for other needs, like nesting.
To eat a diet of sagebrush is not for every kind of wildlife, or we’d have many more nibbling the leaves. Sagebrush smells pungent because it contains chemicals called monoturpenoids that are toxic in large quantities to most grazers and a great defense for the plant. But, there are some—like the sage grouse, pronghorn, mule deer, elk and pygmy rabbit that have evolved to eat the leaves without the toxin bothering them.
Part of the science behind the Sage Grouse Initiative is to keep improving management to make sure that the individual needs within those habitats for other species are met at the same time.
For example, sage sparrows need large continuous sagebrush stands for nesting, while Brewer’s sparrows rely on scattered shrubs and short grass. Sage thrashers nest in tall dense sagebrush with bare ground nearby.
Pronghorn mostly eat forbs, but depend on sagebrush in winter in large open landscapes with visibility to detect predators. Pygmy rabbits make their burrows under tall sagebrush clumps with diggable soils.
Here, let’s take a closer look at some of the wildlife that fall under the umbrella of sage grouse.