Greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) are closely tied to the distribution of big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) throughout much of their range. Prior to settlement by people of European descent, sage-grouse were distributed from southern British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan to eastern California, northern Arizona, and western portions of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota. The core of the distribution was in Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. The Gunnison sage-grouse (Centrocercus minimus) was found primarily in northwestern New Mexico, southeastern Utah, and southwestern Colorado. The current distributions are dramatically reduced.
Sage-grouse historically occurred throughout the shrubsteppe and meadow-steppe communities of eastern Washington. They were observed in abundance in 1805 by members of the Lewis and Clark expedition near the confluence of the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Currently, the state has two relatively isolated breeding populations; one in Douglas-Grant Counties, and one in Kittitas-Yakima Counties. Sporadic sightings outside the primary distribution have been reported in Benton, Yakima, Kittitas, Grant, Lincoln and Okanogan Counties. Greater sage-grouse have also been translocated to Yakima and Lincoln counties, but it is too early to document the success of those efforts.
Sage-grouse are well known for their breeding behavior. Males congregate on traditional display sites, called leks, to display to and breed with females. In Washington, a ‘large’ lek may have more than 50 males in attendance during spring. WDFW conducts lek surveys each spring as a way of monitoring rates of population change in the state. Most leks are situated on private lands. It is important for bird watchers to treat private land with respect and avoid disturbing the birds.
All photos unless otherwise indicated are courtesy of Michael A. Schroeder