New Research + Movie: Wet Habitats On Private Lands Critical For Sage Grouse

Hellyer Ranch near South Pass City, WY uses off-stream water development and riparian pastures to distribute livestock and protect habitat.

March 7, 2016

Islands of green in the sagebrush sea provide vital foraging habitat for growing sage grouse broods.

Download the study: Public lands and private waters: Scarce mesic resources structure land tenure and sage-grouse distributions 

In the arid American West, life follows water. Habitats like streamsides, wet meadows, and wetlands support the greatest variety of animal and plant life. These lush green places attract wildlife in search of shade, drinking water, shelter, or food during their daily and seasonal movements. In late summer, wet meadows, riparian edges, and irrigated fields become vital foraging habitat for growing sage grouse broods. For instance, this Science to Solutions report found that  85% of sage grouse breeding areas, called leks, were clustered within 6 miles of mesic habitats.

However, in a water-scarce landscape, these lush places are also where people naturally settled. Although wet habitats cover less than 2% of the western landscape, more than 80% are located on private lands. This disproportionate distribution of wet resources on private land makes it clear that successful sage grouse conservation will greatly depend on cooperative ventures with private landowners, ranchers and farmers to help sustain vital summer habitats.

wet areas vital for sage grouse in summerA new paper published by Patrick Donnelly with the Intermountain West Joint Venture (and co-authored by Sage Grouse Initiative science staff, Jeremy Maestas and David Naugle), reveals the crucial role that wet areas play in structuring sage grouse distribution and abundance in the sage-steppe ecosystem. This new study provides useful geospatial mapping of mesic resources that will help SGI and our partners in conservation planning. Donnelly’s paper also documents the fact that the majority of wet areas fall under private ownership. The authors state:

“In our study area, 80% of all mesic resources were in private ownership, where the predominant land use is livestock ranching. Results suggest a holistic conservation strategy inclusive of private and public lands is needed to ensure sage-grouse habitat requisites are met throughout the life cycle of this landscape species.”

Scientific studies like this reinforce the importance of the Sage Grouse Initiative’s work with private landowners, ranchers, and farmers to conserve and restore important mesic resources. In fact, under SGI 2.0, we plan to invest even more strategically in sustaining wet areas in the West for the wildlife and the agricultural producers who depend on them.

This short video compiled by Andrew Olsen, a PhD student at Oregon State University advised by Christian Hagen, uses geospatial data from Donnelly’s paper and overlays the movements of two GPS-marked sage grouse hens tracked in the Warner Mountains conifer removal study area in southern Oregon in 2015. Watch how the birds seek out water as the summer goes on!

Watch the video:


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.