April 2021 - 28

Male sage grouse dance at a lek north
of Laramie to attract a hen. (Photo by
Justin Joiner/WGFD)

W

e arrived at our observation site well before sunrise.
Despite the crisp, early-April temperature, we lowered
the windows of the Draper Natural History Museum's
SUV. We were enveloped in a peculiar shroud of darkness and
quiet that precedes dawn in the sagebrush steppe.
After about 15 minutes, the silence was broken by
eerie sounds drifting across the open landscape of the
Big Horn Basin near Cody. It sounded as if somebody
was repeatedly scratching a satin curtain then quickly
popping a champagne cork. It was still too dark to
clearly discern the source of those sounds, but they
became louder and progressively grew into a chorus.
Vague, white forms gradually took shape amid the
chorus. They moved erratically, alternately charging
toward one another and retreating. Eventually, the
strutting, chicken-sized birds became clearly visible.
The satin-scratching sounds? Wing feathers rubbing
across stiff breast feathers, and the popping noise was
emitted when the birds' prominent, yellow throat sacs
forcefully expelled air. We were witnessing one of the
most dramatic events in nature - male greater sage
grouse dancing and challenging one another to attract
mates at a communal breeding ground called a lek.
As a curator of the Draper Museum of Natural
History and a wildlife biologist for the Bureau of
Land Management, we came here to count the birds
attending the lek and to gather information and photographs for an exhibition in the Draper Museum's
planned Plains/Basin Gallery. On that brisk morning in 2000, the lekking activity peaked between 6
and 8 a.m. By 9:30 a.m. all the birds had retreated
into the nearby dense sagebrush. We waited an hour

28 | April 2021	

after all birds had departed to get out of the van and
closely examine the site. The lek " dance hall " was
irregular in shape and pock-marked with more than
30 small, scraped areas where individual male sage
grouse staked out their display positions. Droppings
and loose feathers marked the site. In contrast to
the surrounding sagebrush shrubland, the lek was a
more open, flattened mosaic of short grasses and bare
ground virtually devoid of shrubs.
We've visited that same lek through the years,
often finding it covered with remnant feathers and
dry droppings even weeks after lekking ceased. We
were somewhat surprised last year when we visited
the lek to find most of the strutting ground covered
with dense, tall cheatgrass with little bare ground or
short, native vegetation. There was some evidence of
recent grouse activity but much less than we'd found
in past years.
The invasion of cheatgrass changed the ground
cover and the land's value faded as a lek for sage grouse.
The fate of this lek demonstrates a concern for the
iconic western species. When invasive grasses like
cheatgrass or other factors make a lek site unsuitable,
sage grouse seek another. But if appropriate lek sites
are unavailable, even in otherwise suitable sagebrush
habitat, sage grouse males must display in less than
ideal locations in hopes of attracting a mate.



April 2021

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of April 2021

April 2021 - 1
April 2021 - 2
April 2021 - 3
April 2021 - 4
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April 2021 - 28
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April 2021 - 48
https://www.nxtbook.com/wyominggame/WyomingWildlife/october-2021
https://www.nxtbook.com/wyominggame/WyomingWildlife/september-2021
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https://www.nxtbook.com/wyominggame/WyomingWildlife/January2021
https://www.nxtbook.com/wyominggame/WyomingWildlife/December2020
https://www.nxtbook.com/wyominggame/WyomingWildlife/September2020
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