The Amazing Sage Grouse Strut: Families Flock to Community Bird Day in Pablo

May 8, 2013

Deborah Richie, Sage Grouse initiative, May 24, 2013


Deborah Richie, Sage Grouse Initiative Communications

(406) 370-7556

PABLO, MT – “Those look like eggs,” said Jacelyn Charlo, her eyes wide and curious as she watched a video of a strutting male sage grouse inflating his air sacs. After politely asking permission, she reached up to gently touch the sacs on the sage grouse taxidermy mount next to the laptop screen.

Jacelyn and her dad joined a steady stream of families stopping by the Sage Grouse Initiative booth at Community Bird Day, held at the Salish-Kootenai College in Pablo, May 23, from 5 to 8 pm. The first ever festival featured films in the college theater, 15 exhibitors and several craft tables, along with an outdoor falconry demonstration and bird-friendly plant show. The Montana Audubon booth  (next to the Initiative’s) offered people information on Adopt-a-Lek, a citizen science effort to count sage grouse males each spring during their annual displays.

Whisper Camel-Means, wildlife biologist with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe, worked hard to promote the event as part of International Migratory Bird Day celebrations nationwide. She was pleased to see a strong local turnout, as well as people coming from Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley. More than 100 people participated.

While you won’t find sage grouse near the small town of Pablo, south of Flathead Lake, Montana is a sage grouse stronghold, with the largest populations east of the Continental Divide in the vast, intact sagebrush-steppe.

Dillon and Alyssa Pretty on Top visited the booth with their mother Ellen Rose Bigcrane, and sniffed the fresh cut sagebrush. They were amazed to learn the largest grouse in North America could survive cold winters by eating only sagebrush. Dillon considered what he would eat if he could choose only one kind of food.

“I’d have an apple tree full of apples,” he said with a grin. His sister said she liked salad, so she could be happy like a sage grouse that eats plants.

Stephen Small Salmon took a break from his booth showing the tribal dances based on birds, to come study the sage grouse taxidermy mount. The Salish elder knows the “chicken dance” well, he said, a dance based on tribes observing the prairie chicken, a close relative of the sage grouse. By teaching the dances and native language to young people, Small Salmon passes on his people’s legacy. He teaches at Knwusm, the Salish Language Institute in Arlee.

Adults stopping by the booth shared their stories of watching or hunting sage grouse near Wolf Point, Montana, by Fort Hall in Idaho, in Utah, and in Wyoming.  Others had never heard of a sage grouse. All learned more about proactive conservation in eleven western states.

The Sage Grouse Initiative, a partnership initiated by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, works closely with ranchers and partners to improve sagebrush-steppe and keep habitats intact for sage grouse and other wildlife like pronghorn, mule deer, elk and songbirds. Today, sage grouse inhabit half their historic range and numbers have declined dramatically over the past century in the wake of development. The Initiative joins other positive efforts underway that are showing conservation success for the bird, for the future of ranching, and for children to know that every spring in sagebrush country, the showy males are inflating those egg-like sacs in an age-old ritual to attract females.

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.