Grazed Rangelands Produce Sage Grouse Chicks’ Preferred Food

sage grouse chick in wildflowers

November 26, 2018

New research shows that grazing lands grow more bugs for birds to eat

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Arthropods, like beetles, ants, and caterpillars, are a key food source for greater sage-grouse and lesser prairie-chickens. Research shows that virtually 100% of the diet of one- to four-week-old sage grouse chicks is composed of arthropods.

However, studies also indicate that only a few types of ground-dwelling arthropods make up the bulk of the food important for sage grouse survival.

A sage grouse hen takes her chicks out to feed. Video courtesy of Tyler Dungannon with Oregon State University.

Land use such as livestock grazing—the most common use of rangelands—influence the abundance and composition of arthropods, which may have far-reaching effects on rangeland ecosystems.

Researchers from Montana State University (MSU) investigated relative abundance and diversity of ground-dwelling arthropods in sagebrush habitats in central Montana from 2012–2015.

Samples were collected weekly in three types of pastures: grazed, idle, and deferred (pastures in the “rest” phase of a rest-rotation grazing system implemented through the USDA-NRCS Sage Grouse Initiative). Special thanks to USDA’s CEAP Wildlife program for funding this research.

Grazed rangelands produced more sage grouse food compared to idled pastures where predatory spiders were most abundant.” -Hayes Goosey, lead researcher, MSU

Although total arthropod catches were twice as high on idle pastures compared to managed pastures, researchers discovered that the specific classes of arthropods preferred by sage grouse were 13% more prevalent on managed pastures.

Plus, managed rangeland supported a more diverse assemblage of ground-dwelling  arthropods, which may be particularly beneficial for birds that rely on this critical food resource.

In the American West’s grazing-adapted ecosystem, long-term absence of grazing or other disturbance dramatically alters the structure of arthropod communities, ultimately resulting in reduced availability of important food resources for shrubland and grassland birds.

Livestock grazing that incorporates rest-rotation or other conservation practices may provide a valuable ecosystem service. Well-managed livestock grazing of native plants is one of the best ways to benefit wildlife and working lands.

Rangelands with lush native grasses, wildflowers, sagebrush and wet meadows are the best habitat for arthropods, as well as sage grouse and hundreds of other species. Plus, managing for diverse, healthy plants puts more pounds on livestock, too.

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The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.