Rangeland Fire and Sage-Grouse

Information for firefighters, fire managers, the public, and anyone who may be interested in wildfire's effect on the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem.

About the Bird

Greater sage-grouse have been called an icon of western rangelands, and for good reason. Their mating behavior is fascinating, with males fanning their spiky tail feathers, puffing out their chest and revealing bright yellow, balloon-like air sacs. Wing movement and alternately inflating and deflating their air sacs produce a low, loud popping noise that is one of the most distinctive sounds in nature. Sage grouse have an affinity for home; they generally return to the same breeding grounds, or leks, every year.

Greater sage-grouse are about the size of a chicken.  In color, they’re mostly brown and a mottled white. Males are larger than females and can weigh up to six pounds. They’re underrated as flyers – sage grouse can reach speeds of almost 50 miles-an-hour, and fly up to six miles – but they prefer to get from place to place by walking. 

Sage-grouseThey’re regarded as an indicator species of the Great Basin’s overall condition. Where greater sage-grouse populations are healthy, the ecosystem is generally healthy. Where greater sage-grouse populations are dropping, it means that ecosystem health is likely declining.

Sage grouse are worth saving. They are a living symbol of the vast sagebrush-steppe.

The Biggest Danger to Sage Grouse

In the Great Basin, it’s clear. Fire and invasive species – primarily cheatgrass -- are the prime threats to greater sage-grouse.

Why Sagebrush Matters to Sage Grouse

In the winter, greater sage-grouse feed entirely on sagebrush leaves. Sagebrush also provides protection from the harsh elements. Hens lay an average of 6-9 eggs on the ground under sagebrush. Sagebrush also provides cover for the birds. Greater sage-grouse are entirely dependent on healthy stands of sagebrush. No sagebrush means no sage grouse.

Wildfire, Sage Grouse and Invasive SpeciesSagebrush steppe

The increase of wildfire frequency and size in the Great Basin over the last few decades has taken a toll on sagebrush. As more fires burn, the native sagebrush-steppe ecosystem is being replaced by annual invasive species, primarily cheatgrass, which dominates up to 100 million acres in the West. As sagebrush has decreased, greater sage-grouse populations have plunged.

Firefighters and managers understand the cheatgrass cycle. Cheatgrass thrives in disturbed areas, such as those that have recently burned. It cures early in the spring and can form a mat of continuous fuel, which carries fire fast and far. Cheatgrass is highly flammable; it’s often compared to tissue paper as a fuel.  So the more fire, the more cheatgrass. And the more cheatgrass, the more fire. It’s a cycle that must be stopped, if the Great Basin is ever again to resemble its historical condition.

It’s not just sage grouse that are threatened by loss of habitat. More than 350 other wildlife and plant species also inhabit the Great Basin. And local economies are hurt when wildfire erupts in the sagebrush-steppe.

Wildfire in high-quality sagebrush habitat instantly becomes a top priority for firefighters.

Protecting Sagebrush-Steppe Habitat

Fire managers and firefighters are very aware of the importance of sagebrush habitat and they’re committed to protecting it from wildfire, without compromising safety. Here are a few steps they’ve taken to ensure sagebrush-steppe habitat is protected from wildfire:

These are just some of the tactics and plans agencies have in place to help protect sagebrush in the Great Basin from the devastating effects of wildfire. And still more approaches to restoring the Great Basin are being developed. The Great Basin won’t return to its historical natural condition overnight. It will take years and perhaps decades before that happens in many places. In some locations, the Great Basin will never be restored. In the meantime, the strategy is to protect the best remaining stands of sagebrush, control wildfires as efficiently as possible, limit their damage and restore and connect areas of sage-steppe habitat where it makes sense to do so.  

The short story is conserving sagebrush and protecting it from wildfire is among the very highest of priorities for fire managers. They know what happens today will do much to provide the best chance for a healthy future for sage grouse and sagebrush-steppe habitat in the West.

Learn more about the greater sage-grouse and the sage-steppe ecosystem:

Sage Grouse Biology
Sage Grouse Initiative
Why Care About America's Sagebrush?

See what our partners are doing:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
U.S. Forest Service
Forests and Rangelands