Sage Grouse Indicator

Can conservation raise your ranch’s bottom line?

If Noppadol Paothong sleeps in until 4am, he’s already late for work. The tenacious photographer has spent the last 15 spring seasons waking up before dawn in order to observe the early morning mating rituals of the greater sage grouse.

“To me sage grouse represent the wildness of a place,” Paothong said. “They are symbolic of wilderness. The last frontier of the American West.”

In many ways Paothong is right. The greater sage grouse is an indicator species, which means that its presence indicates vitality and resilience in a sagebrush steppe ecosystem. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), habitat restoration efforts that benefit greater sage grouse populations also benefit 350 other dependent species. Songbirds like the Brewer’s sparrow and green tailed towhee as well as ungulates like mule deer and pronghorn proliferate where land has been managed for the benefit of the grouse.

But, many sage grouse do not live in protected wilderness areas. In fact almost 40% of sage grouse habitat is on private land, including millions of acres of rangeland across the Western US. That’s why, when the sagebrush steppe came under threat, it was landowners and ranchers that brought it back from the brink.

The sagebrush ocean, as it is commonly referred to, once stretched across and beyond the great basin, but much of it has been replaced by oil fields, housing developments and industrial farmland over the past century. Rampant wildfires, due in part to invasive grass species, and encroaching conifers have further threatened the once ubiquitous biome.