Sage Grouse Need Intact Landscapes For Long-Distance Movement

Photo of sage grouse in flight by Tatiana Gettelman.

March 28, 2017

Photo by Tatiana Gettelman – Intact, healthy rangeland is vital for birds like sage grouse, which need movement corridors that allow migration and gene flow.

New science shows that keeping big landscapes healthy and connected is essential for maintaining bigger-than-expected sage grouse movements

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Two new studies revealed unknown long-distance dispersal and migration movements in sage grouse that offer fresh insights for conservation. Using DNA from feathers dropped at leks, scientists discovered that some grouse (about 1% of populations) travel long distances to
explore breeding areas up to 120 miles away — movements that can potentially boost populations and temper inbreeding.

A separate satellite-telemetry study of sage grouse that migrate between Saskatchewan and Montana found that this population migrates annually up to 150 miles roundtrip between seasonal ranges. During migration, grouse use pathways through intact habitat and rest and refuel at stopover sites. Taken together, these findings underscore the need to conserve intact sagebrush habitats across large landscapes on both public and private lands to sustain sage grouse movement pathways, their populations, and genetic diversity.

“The results of these studies profoundly changed our view of the landscape and what these birds need. Working in partnership to conserve habitats across a patchwork of ownerships is the only way to maintain the wide-open spaces sage grouse need to thrive,” John C. Carlson, Montana Zone 1 Greater Sage-Grouse Lead for the Bureau of Land Management in Billings.

Using feather DNA and satellite telemetry, scientists recently discovered record-breaking long-distance movements by greater sage-grouse.

Using feather DNA and satellite telemetry, scientists recently discovered record-breaking long-distance movements by greater sage-grouse.

These studies underscore that sage grouse require large landscapes of healthy native
sagebrush habitat for their survival. The genetic data revealed that sage grouse disperse farther than previously thought, and GPS-tracked birds taught us that sage grouse not only undertake long migrations, but they do so by using pathways and stopover sites of intact sagebrush habitat. In addition to conserving seasonal ranges, keeping big landscapes intact is essential for maintaining these birds’ movement pathways, which provide for migration and gene flow.

To conserve sage grouse habitat and movement pathways, the NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative partners with agencies, nonprofits, and landowners. Through voluntary projects with private landowners, SGI secures conservation easements to protect native grazing lands from cultivation and subdivision, sets up grazing systems that help producers remain profitable and productive, and removes invading conifers to restore pastures and open up pathways between seasonal grouse ranges.

These programs benefit agricultural producers who depend on healthy rangeland for their livelihood, while safeguarding sagebrush habitats and vital connections at the scale sage grouse need.

Science to Solutions: Sage Grouse Need Intact Landscapes for Long-Distance Movement

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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.