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The physics of beauty is one department of natural science still in the Dark Ages. Not even the manipulators of bent space have tried to solve its equations. Everybody knows, for example, that the autumn landscape in the north woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a ruffed grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre. Yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.
~ Aldo Leopold, 1937
Grouse are umbrella and indicator species for western grasslands and deserts. Some western grouse have experienced both habitat loss and population declines since European settlement. Grouse are negatively affected by livestock grazing, oil and gas extraction, agricultural conversion, roads, fences, powerlines and pipelines, off-road vehicles, mining, urban sprawl, unnatural fire, and invasive species. WildEarth Guardians’ Western Grouse Project is a coordinated effort to protect grouse species, subspecies and distinct population segments under the Endangered Species Act. We seek to restore grouse populations and guard their respective habitats from further loss and degradation.
The greater sage-grouse is emblematic of the vast Sagebrush Sea landscape. First described by Lewis and Clark in 1805, nineteenth century travelers and settlers reported huge flocks of sage-grouse that darkened the sky as they lifted from valley floors. The historic range of greater sage-grouse closely conformed to the distribution of sagebrush-steppe in what became thirteen western states and three Canadian provinces. However, since 1900 sage-grouse populations have declined. Greater sage-grouse distribution has decreased by at least 44 percent while overall abundance has been reduced by as much as 93 percent from historic levels.
In time there were two as perfectly adjusted to their habitat as the sage. One was a mammal, the fleet and graceful pronghorn antelope. The other was a bird, the sage grouse ‑ the "cock of the plains" of Lewis and Clark.
The sage and the grouse seem made for each other. The original range of the bird coincided with the range of the sage, and as the sagelands have been reduced, so the populations of grouse have dwindled.
~ Rachel Carson, Silent Spring 1962
The Gunnison sage-grouse is distinct from greater sage-grouse, identified by researchers as early as the 1970s and recognized as a new species by the American Ornithologists’ Union in 2000. While its historic range may have included parts of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona, the species now occurs only in eight small populations in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. Gunnison sage-grouse have experienced significant declines from historic numbers and only about 4,000 breeding individuals remain.
Columbian sharp-tailed grouse are the smallest and rarest of six subspecies of sharp-tailed grouse in North America. The Columbian sharp-tailed grouse was once considered the most abundant grouse in the West. The historic range of Columbian sharp-tailed grouse included parts of what became ten western states and one Canadian province. However, by 1900 Columbian sharp-tailed grouse distribution had declined. The subspecies now exists in less than ten percent of its historic range.
The lesser prairie-chicken once occurred throughout the southern Great Plains. The species’ historic range included parts of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. Lesser prairie chicken has declined by over 90 percent due to myriad land uses.
Mono Basin sage-grouse are a subpopulation of greater sage-grouse that occur on the southern border of California and Nevada. Geneticists have discovered that Mono Basin sage-grouse are genetically distinct from other sage grouse. Research indicates that Mono Basin sage-grouse have "a unique history of isolation distinct from all other populations" and that they are "at least as divergent from other populations of the greater sage-grouse as Gunnison sage-grouse are from the greater sage-grouse." A species that was once described as abundant now only exists in small, isolated populations in the region.
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