The Wyoming Department of Fish and Game reports that grouse lek attendance remains steady based on data from the department’s lek counts this spring.
According to Game and Fish, in 2022 lek attendance increased slightly by 6% from last year. The appearance of more birds in the leks is thought to be due to the natural population cycles of the sage grouse combined with good humidity which benefited the habitat.
This spring, officials counted an average of 17.9 male grouse per active lek. More than 16,740 male capercaillies were observed in 87% of the known occupied leks. Annual counts are conducted by Game and Fish, Bureau of Land Management, consultants, and volunteers. Birds are counted either from the air or from the ground through remote observations during their spring mating.
“The humidity was a welcome boost for sage grouse – drought conditions affected chick survival during the summer of last year, which in turn influenced the population,” said Nyssa Whitford, game grouse and sagebrush biologist. and Fish. “This year, improved habitat conditions contributed to helping stabilize grouse populations.”
Habitat is key to the sustainability of the capercaillie and it excels in times of drought. Grouse is an obligate species of sagebrush and could not survive without the plant.
“The sage grouse cannot thrive if the sagebrush habitat is fragmented and in poor condition. Wyoming continues to invest significantly in efforts to conserve sage grouse habitat,” said Whitford. “Habitat projects that build resilience in the ecosystem are a priority.”
Game and Fish also monitors the percentage of known active and inactive leks throughout Wyoming. A lek is considered inactive if no birds or signs of strutting are observed under ideal conditions during the mating season. Active leks remain stable at 75.6%.
Game and Fish data on sage grouse lek attendance goes back almost six decades and traces the cyclical nature of the bird population.
“Grey grouse populations go up and down,” Whitford said. “Studies indicate that Wyoming’s population cycles every six to eight years. So we were pleased to see a slight increase this year and anticipate seeing more in the years to come.”
The cause of these well-established cycles is not understood, but Game and Fish theorizes that it is influenced by time and climate, which in turn affects the availability of food and cover in the sagebrush ecosystem. Wyoming sage grouse populations reached an all-time low in the early 1990s following prolonged drought and habitat loss.
Game and Fish makes the bird recognize the natural ups and downs. Part of that management includes a conservative hunting season that undergoes extensive review each year and a public comment process.
The department reports that information from hunters is an important aspect of monitoring grouse populations. Annually, hunters are asked to drop the wings of their harvested grouse into barrels for analysis.
“Hunter-submitted wings are a tool that Game and Fish uses to monitor the grouse population. This fall, we are again asking hunters to give us wings from harvested sage grouse,” said Whitford.
Other important information for population monitoring is hunter surveys. Traditionally, grouse hunters were surveyed each spring as part of a larger survey to quantify the harvest of all upland game birds, migratory game birds, and small game. This year, Game and Fish will conduct a separate survey of grouse hunters.
“Specifically surveying grouse hunters will give the department more direct and timely information to inform management decisions,” said Jason Carlisle, a quantitative biologist with the Fish and Game Science, Research and Analytical Support Unit.
Grouse hunters can expect surveys soon after the hunting season concludes.