Sage grouse numbers are slipping away in eastern Idaho
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As the sun peaked over Mount Moran on Thursday, I headed for my favorite sage grouse lek between Idaho Highway 33 and the Egan/Hamer Road. That area had just opened for human travel and I was excited to get some pictures of the bird that started my love affair of bird watching.
There was a lonely single cock standing regally on a rock and it scrunched down as I positioned my truck where I have for over 20 years. Ten years ago, that ridge was the dancing place for over 100 cocks displaying for the hens as they would come to lek.
But on Thursday morning just the one showed up and his sporadic displays were did not entice any hens or even another lonely male to show up.
Thinking that waiting for the legal time to enter the area was too late and all the other birds may have been spooked before I got there, I got there early on Friday morning – real early – 4:45 a.m. It was a cold 32 minute wait until I heard a bird fly in and start the “plopping“ its air sacs. When it got light enough to see the bird, it appeared to be the same male that I had seen the day before. Between its sporadic displays, the silence was deafening as no other birds came in to show off.
Last year on April 1, I observed and photographed seven males on that same ridge which had dropped from 12 in 2019. So, I wondered if they had moved to a nearby lek and on Friday morning I visited six other leks within a mile or two from this one and did not find a single grouse on any of them.
I attempted to find if the Idaho Department of Fish and Game had any numbers on their lek counts this year and was informed that they have just began their counts. Numbers will not be available until this summer. he Fish and Game are aware of the dropping in the population of the sage grouse and have closed their hunting season east of Interstate 15 for the last several years.
Friday after my unofficial survey of that area, I decided to run over to the A-2 Road that runs from Dubois to Kilgore. About six miles out of Dubois, I found 17 cocks and several hens in a cattle-holding pen that has a small shack next to it. That was a site to behold as I watched some cocks battling for supremacy of the lek because the top bird will do as high as 80 per cent of the breeding there.
From that lek for the next four miles I saw scattered sage grouse and two other leks. =The lek by the twin water towers had 14 cocks displaying and as I watched 24 hens fly or walk into the lek and gathered around a male by the watering tank. The satellite males that attempted to approach the females got their tail feathers kicked by the main guy.
If you are thinking 17 or 14 are a lot of males on a lek, guess again. A few years back the city of Dubois and the Forest Service guys and gals hosted a Dubois Grouse Day each year in April. Usually three or four school buses were used to transport guests out to watch the grouse on their leks. I guided the bus that went from Dubois toward Kilgore and then down the Red Road to the Sand Dunes and back. There were seven leks that had from 70 to 120 cocks on each of them. Often times the roads would be covered with these “wild chickens.”
If the sage grouse population continues to drop, their entertaining dance may disappear for future generations. Those of you that want to see these large birds in action, the best place to go is probably east of Dubois as the Red Road is still closed.
Watching them is an early morning activity as by 8:30 a.m. most of the birds have been dispersed by hawks and eagles. They are most active just as the sun comes up.
Good luck in the outdoors and be careful, there are a lot of large animals migrating and two of them almost played tag with me Friday morning.