“As an article of food the Sage-Hen cannot be recommended, unless the precaution is taken to flay it immediately, for its flesh soon becomes permeated with the disagreeable odor of the sage-brush, the leaves of which form its principal food. In fact, it is often found necessary to soak the carcase in salt-water over night before the flesh becomes palatable.”
-Robert Ridgway, zoologist, U.S. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, 1860s
High in the Desatoya Mountains east of Fallon, Nevada, just off U.S. Route 50—famously dubbed “The Loneliest Road in America” by Life Magazine in 1986, still stolidly upholding its name—a curious congregation gathers in the predawn light. It is, in fact, two separate congregations: one, of a winged and feathered sort, strutting about the levelled bolson floor amid clearings in the frost-nipped sagebrush; the other, hominid and mostly hairless, huddled near their cars, swaddled in gloves and fleece and peering intently at members of the first through binoculars and spotting scopes. They coexist but just barely so, at a safe remove.
What, pray tell, brings these disparate groups together on this sparkling March morning, deep in the sage-strewn bolsons and trackless benches of the central Great Basin?
For the first—the feathered ones, known to science as Centrocercus urophasianus, or greater sage-grouse—it is instinct, an innate drive among the white-ruffed, lanceolate-tailed, golden-browed males to gather and flounce and puff up their chests in communal displays called leks, in hopes of attracting a mate and passing along their genes for posterity. The cryptic females—smaller, sleeker, demure—stick to the sidelines, looking on with varying degrees of interest. They’ve got options: plenty of cocks prancing around these mountains. Eventually they’ll couple with the studliest male and then jet off, to start the solitary life of a nesting sage hen.
For that second group—the stalwart biologists and volunteers, some having gotten up at 2 a.m. to witness this earliest of early-bird specials and tally individuals—it is something more akin to stewardship, to conservation of a dying art, the boots-on-the-ground efforts of people endeavoring to keep alive, in the words of naturalist Fred A. Ryser, Jr., “one of the most stirring and colorful natural history pageants in the Great Basin.”
The sun creeps up over the snow-capped range to the east, setting icy sagebrush limbs aglitter. A lone pronghorn pauses mid-chew, watching the humans watching the birds. Separated by hundreds of yards, the two groups quietly await the light’s liquid advance across the valley. The warming effect is immediate, electrifying. Suddenly the klatsch comes alive—there is a sound like champagne corks popping in the distance, a flurry of activity at the scopes, through the scopes, toward the lek—as an innervation spreads from bird to birdwatcher alike.
Kim Tulouse, volunteer project coordinator for Nevada Department of Wildlife, keeps the twenty or so humans ruly. “Shh! Do you hear that?” He directs their ears to a far-off popping, the sound of esophageal sacs being rapidly compressed as the males, stiff-backed with wings spread and tails splayed, puff out their chests in display. “It’s like an old-school percolator going off: bloink, bloink, bloink.” Through the scope, two hundred yards away, the heaving chests and ballooning yellow sacs seem strangely disconnected from the sound—it’s difficult to tell, exactly, which bird is making noise, as they all appear to be puffing in unison.
What begins with four cocks soon grows to twenty, then thirty. They fly in fast and heavy, tapered tails streaming as they beeline toward the low sage demarcating the lek. A few hens join in, landing and promptly blending into the foliage; when immobile they disappear to startling effect. “Turning to stone,” Tulouse calls it. “But females won’t stay around leks for long: once they’re bred they’re outta there.”
The lekking ground is an arena, a gladiator ring for males—and as in any arena, competition is the name of the game. Sometimes the males charge, rooster-like, tearing after one another in comical barnyard chases through the sagebrush. Less frequently they squabble, lunging and buffeting with heavy wingbeats. Feathers fly, but rarely do things escalate from there.
“When I see them go at it like that, I always think of two sixth-grade boys, getting into each other’s faces and bumping chests,” Tulouse says. “Nothing ever comes of it, just a lot of huffing and puffing.”
Leks serve primarily as a venue for flagrant sexual selection, where cocks gather and exhibit and compete for copulatory rights. But with sage-grouse, often it is only a handful of males, out of sometimes dozens or even hundreds at a lek, which hoard the lion’s share of hens. It is the females who choose, and they settle for nothing less than the best. So to all those other, less macho males—for whom mating is a distant, preadolescent dream—lekking provides the ancillary benefit of practice time. Young males will return to the same lekking grounds year after year, honing their chops and learning from the pros. It’s almost like play-acting, which in a way is fitting: “Lek” is a Swedish word describing pleasurable, free-form recreation, such as the innocent roleplay of children. It is priming behavior, preparatory to future pursuits. The younger birds might not be getting any action now, but they are, in effect, trainees—they’ll soon get the hang of it.
Later that morning, driving a Ford Expedition full of volunteers to another lek, Tulouse remarks, “The best way to monitor sage grouse is from a vehicle. They don’t seem to be bothered by vehicles. But you have to get there early. Then you can just camp out in your warm car with your binoculars and watch the birds gather around you.” He pauses, nods his head. “Yes. Staying out of sight, in the car, is ideal.” He pulls behind a caravan of volunteers’ trucks and SUVs winding along a gravel road toward a raised clearing: the next lek. “Because, if they see people coming too close…” The lead car, perhaps inching too close, flushes a flock of grouse off the lek— ten fly to the left, thirteen go right. “Well, damn. There they go. Sometimes it’s even just an arm waving out of a window—they see it, they’ll explode.” Explode is an apt expression: like all gallinaceous birds, sage-grouse have stout, powerful wings, capable of swift flight—in their case, fifty-plus miles per hour—over short distances. Up close, a large flock of grouse taking to the sky can stop one cold, their percussive wingbeats rending the air like gunfire.
For several key reasons, leks provide biologists an unusually rich opportunity to study their subjects. (Other than the eighty-odd species of lek birds worldwide, there are lek mammals, reptiles, fish, even insects.) First, leks gather many individuals of a species together, in relative propinquity, even sometimes—in the case of the sage-grouse—at a very conspicuous locale, facilitating observation. Second, lekking grounds typically see use only at certain times during the year, when breeding takes place—thus the species follows a schedule, more or less, and shows up on time (more or less). Lastly, with sage-grouse, lekking grounds are used through many generations, for as long as the site suits their fancy. Individuals often remain faithful to a particular lek, or series of leks, throughout their lives. If, for whatever reason, a lek falls out of favor (i.e., sees fewer and fewer birds per year, or doesn’t see any at all), it is therefore plausible that that particular population has died out. “Inactive” sites are erstwhile leks, and across most of the American West they are growing in number.
Hence the need for lek surveys. Leks provide reliable, easily gathered data on sage-grouse densities. A proposal to list certain populations of sage-grouse as an endangered species has prompted renewed interest in its status and available habitat—mostly in efforts to fight the listing. Ranchers, miners, oil and natural gas developers, even Nevada Department of Wildlife are opposed. This is high-stakes conservation, with serious economic implications. The bird’s current range spans 11 states and two Canadian provinces, covering more than 250,000 square miles. In Nevada alone there are more than 30,000 square miles of potential habitat—that is, scrub-steppe between 4,000 and 9,000 feet in elevation, covered in requisite sagebrush and sufficiently undeveloped—a distribution crossing into 15 of the state’s 17 counties. There’s lots of sage here, and not an insignificant number of grouse. Nevadans still hunt them every fall. So it comes as little surprise that sage-grouse numbers have been monitored in this state for some time now: NDOW has records dating back to the 1940s, and for the last nine years the organization and its partners (along with hundreds of volunteers) have surveyed more than 700 leks a year, 314 of which were active sites. Their findings? Sage-grouse populations in Nevada have been declining since 2001, largely as a result of increased fire activity. (Here’s one culprit.) Fires from 1999 to 2007 burned 2.6 million acres of prime sage-grouse habitat, affecting forty percent of the active leks in the state. Other stressors include residential expansion, juniper-pinyon encroachment (sage-grouse don’t much like trees), and, dismayingly, sustainable energy development. This last appears to loom large on Nevada’s horizon, for better or for worse.
Back in the Desatoya Mountains, the grouse appear to have finished their morning leks. At nine-thirty the air is starting to warm up appreciably; frost has melted off the sagebrush and meadowlarks are singing. Volunteers, some of whom too tired to know better, begin eating their lunches. The group of birdwatching humans gathers for a closing lecture. The thing to remember about sage-grouse, explains NDOW Wildlife Staff Specialist Shawn Espinosa, is that they rely on more than just sagebrush. They have, in fact, rather specific living requirements: Sage-grouse depend not only on prime lekking habitat for survival, but also prime brooding habitat, and chick-rearing habitat, and wintering habitat, all of which are distinct. They are known as a “landscape-scale species,” meaning that their needs and proclivities encompass entire landscapes, the various regions providing different services depending on the season. All of it is essential to the success of the species.
The grouse are sagebrush-obligates, Espinosa says. “They rely on sagebrush species for food and shelter. In the winter they eat sagebrush almost exclusively. It’s the only green thing they can reach through the snow.” The bird and the bush are a two-fer, conjoined by evolution. Save the sage-grouse—the West’s latest embattled bird—and save the sagebrush. A whole lot of it, potentially: 250,000 square miles, a veritable ocean of sage. But saving sagebrush? Not likely to garner support, not out West. Not when there are more profitable things to do with the land. That notion’s been losing traction since the early 19th century.