PBS Program Chronicles Sage Grouse and Other Inhabitants of the Sagebrush Sea

Reader Contribution by K.C. Compton
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WNET Thirteen’s new Nature episode, “The Sagebrush Sea,” tracks the Greater Sage Grouse and other wildlife through the seasons as they struggle to survive in a rugged and changing landscape. The program airs Wednesday, May 20, at 8 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings) and will be available for streaming after the broadcast on the PBS website.

If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to make your way to the sagebrush steppes of the western U.S. during sage grouse mating season, you probably will consider the experience one of the highlights of your life. For pure theatricality and showmanship, a male sage grouse vying for female attention is hard to beat. They puff and pop and practically dance their handsome feathers off in a stiff competition to show to the females gathered on the lek (a sagebrush-ringed clearing) that they, not those other puny chickens, should be fathers of the next generation.

The heck of it is, it works. By some set of criteria known only to the ladies of the lek, one or two males get thumbs, er, claws up and they – and only they – are allowed to breed that season. How the remaining males deal with this disappointment is unknown, though it’s suspected they play a lot of video games in their parents’ basement and troll strangers on the Internet.

What even the gallant grouse who win female approval can’t do, however, is stop the plummeting population of greater sage grouse in the immense sea of sagebrush sometimes called “The Big Empty” (or, if you’re Tom Petty, “The Great Wide Open”). Two hundred years or so ago, as many as 16 million sage grouse could be found in this sagebrush sea. Now, their numbers have diminished to fewer than 200,000.

Sage, which provides everything these birds need, survives in the arid West through long roots that stretch to deep underground water. Unfortunately, water is not the only key resource locked below the ground in this high desert. Fracking wells, pipelines and other intrusions fragment this sea of sage and profoundly affect both bird habitats and migratory corridors. Of the original 500,000 square miles of sagebrush steppe that once stretched across North America, only half now remains, and the future of both sage and grouse is uncertain.

Other species discussed in the program include the golden eagle, the burrowing owl and the great-horned owl, as well as cavity-nesting bluebirds and the American kestrel, sagebrush sparrow and other breeds particular to the Sagebrush Sea.

Photos courtesy of © Gerrit Vyn/Cornell Lab of Ornithology

(Top) A male greater sage grouse struts and displays for the ladies. Pinedale region, WY.

(Middle)Two male greater sage grouse fight at their territorial boundary on a lek. Pinedale region, WY.

(Bottom) Eight burrowing owls chicks huddle in the warmth of the afternoon sun at the entrance to their repurposed badger hole. Pinedale region, WY.

K.C. Compton is an editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS and formerly was Editor in Chief of our sister publication, GRIT. She was a newspaper editor in Wyoming for several years and became well-acquainted with The Big Empty. She misses it a great deal, except in winter.

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