This past week allowed some time for Matthew and myself to head down to Nevada to assist one of our videographers in the filming of Greater Sage Grouse. Tatiana Gettelman is a wildlife biologist working with Sage Grouse in northeastern Nevada as part of a monitoring project for the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
The Greater Sage Grouse is a species of concern throughout the Great Basin and Intermountain West, and has been given a “warranted but precluded” listing by the US Fish & Wildlife Service. This means the species is warranted for listing as an endangered species, but that it is precluded for now by other species with greater conservation needs. The US Fish & Wildlife service will have to make a decision about officially listing the Great Sage Grouse as an endangered species in 2014. This decision will have major ramifications throughout the west as Sage Grouse are a wide-ranging species, and listing under the Endangered Species Act would affect everything from cattle ranching, to wind power, to human development. Due to this upcoming decision, biologists are studying Sage Grouse more than ever throughout their range, and this is leading to a better understanding of their overall ecology and population status. Wild Lens feels it is crucial to provide more information about this species’ conservation status to the general public, and so we have paired up with Tatiana and USGS to help document Sage Grouse on this particular project site.
Tatiana had already been collecting amazing footage of Sage Grouse throughout the first few months of the project, but we thought it beneficial for Wild Lens to come out into the field for a few days to get some additional footage, as well as some audio recordings of male Sage Grouse at lekking sites.
We started our trip by visiting a known grouse nest, north of Wells, Nevada. As we approached the nest on foot from the truck, Tatiana instructed us on how to best proceed without flushing the female off the nest. Due to high predation rates from aerial predators such as Ravens, we did not want to flush her off the nest, thus leaving her eggs unprotected. We were able to get within 30 feet or so of the nest, and got great looks of the well-camouflaged female sitting on her eggs!
The next morning found us waking up at 3:30 AM to head out to a lekking site. Sage Grouse are unique in that during the breeding season males congregate at display sites (called leks) in the mornings and wait for females to arrive. When a prospective female arrives, all of the males at the lek compete for her attention, and she ultimate chooses the male she feels will provide the best genetic information for her offspring. We arrived at the lek just before sunrise to see about 35 male grouse all around us performing their truly bizarre and amazing display! View the video below to see a male grouse in action.
That afternoon we tracked two female grouse outfitted with radio collars under an astonishingly huge Great Basin sky. We wanted to check in on their nesting sites to make sure all was well with incubation. As we approached the first nest, we noticed a cattle rancher on horseback, and Tatiana stopped him to chat. Ranchers such as these will be crucial to the success of any conservation plan implemented around Sage Grouse, as they are the ones out on the range everyday. These ranchers are sometimes given a bad rep as being against anything conservation oriented that will impact their cattle business, but I think all of us biologists have had countless positive interactions with these folks, and most seem very willing to help where they can to save this species. The rancher accompanied us to the nest, and we were able to get great looks at the females on both nests. Both were incubating large clutches of eggs!
With our return to Boise, Idaho the following day, Matt and I reflected on our visit to Nevada. We both came away with more knowledge about the specific conservation issues facing this species. We also felt we obtained great footage and photographs of Tatiana on her project, and are very excited about the possibilities surrounding the future of this project. Tatiana is getting great footage of grouse, and she is also very passionate about the birds she is studying. Over the next few years, Greater Sage Grouse conservation and science may become the most important, and controversial, wildlife issue facing the Intermountain West. The need to educate the public surrounding this issue will be huge, and Wild Lens hopes our collaboration with Tatiana and USGS will help do just that!