Unfortunately, greater sage-grouse are not as easy to find as they used to be. The birds’ population, once estimated at 16 million, is now believed to be less than one million. The population decline is related to their habitat, much of which has been paved over, converted to croplands, degraded by non-native grasses and conifer encroachment, and fragmented by roads and other barriers. Every year, groups of the birds congregate at mating areas called “leks” — areas that are used every year unless they are disrupted. Because of the location-specific nature of their mating process, greater sage-grouse are particularly vulnerable to habitat disruption.
Recently published work from scientists at the Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS) may help protect the birds’ habitat and their ability to reproduce. The research article, entitled “The genetic network of greater sage-grouse: range-wide identification of keystone hubs of connectivity,” describes how genetic analysis of DNA from greater sage-grouse feather quills can identify and help to map areas of importance in maintaining genetic connectivity. This research can help land managers understand how specific lek locations serve larger geographic areas and to understand the role of genetic connectivity in the birds’ mating process.
This research can help land managers evaluate proposed development or management actions in light of their impact on leks that are important for genetic connectivity — and how restoration or an easement could protect connectivity or reconnect the birds with their leks.