The long-term answer [for sage-grouse conservation] is to restore the carrying capacity of our sagebrush steppe
— Brian Rutledge, Audubon Rockies

On another lek in western Wyoming, the mottled brown hens are conducting an inspection, but they don’t show it as they mill about, seemingly oblivious to the commotion around them: Male sage-grouse furiously unleash popping sounds with heaving chests. Rival males flap their feathers in a wingbeat scuffle.

Then one morning, as sunrise casts first light on the lek, the hens gather around a few prime males. These were the dancers with the stamina to keep displaying when others could not. These were the first to return after a coyote disturbed the lek. These are the fathers of the next generation.

The breeding displays on this lek are so vigorous that on the first full moon of spring, the sage-grouse dance all night long in the moonlight. This is a core area, where rolling sagebrush runs all the way to the horizon.

It will take time to measure how sage-grouse respond to the protection of core areas. Many biologists believe sage-grouse populations rise and fall in regular fluctuations about every 10 years. Fifty years of data from annual counts of male sage-grouse on leks in Wyoming bear that pattern out, and the population appears to have been in an ebb phase recently—down every year from the last peak in 2006 to 2013.

But last spring, lek counts of male sage-grouse in Wyoming were up by 9 percent, the first increase in nine years. Nevada and Colorado also reported increases.

One year does not a recovery make, but backers of the core plan say the industry response has been a clear metric of success. An analysis by The Nature Conservancy showed there has been a 40 percent reduction in the area the BLM has leased for oil and gas exploration since the core policy was first enacted in 2008. As far as the type of drilling that is occurring, permits for horizontal drilling have increased more than 1,000 percent since 2006, which means there is more directional drilling being done from a single well pad, a practice with far less surface disturbance than vertical drilling.

A wave of other sage-grouse plans are in various stages of development in advance of the big Endangered Species Act decision due in September—10 other state plans, and more than 70 regional plans for federal BLM and U.S. Forest Service lands. Even though the American Bird Conservancy’s Steve Holmer was critical of the core plan and the first BLM regional plan in Wyoming, he is optimistic about the other plans to come.

“I’m anticipating better plans,” Holmer says. “We’ve been spending a great deal of time working with our partners to bring information to the agencies. It is my hope that [the Obama administration] will stand up to some of these political pressures.

“A worst-case scenario is that they put out more weak management plans that are legally indefensible and fail to protect grouse. But I’m actually hopeful that these final management plans [will be] strong enough and that we’ll see a stabilization of the population.”

Audubon’s Rutledge is hopeful, too, that he’ll see some of the reserve areas in other plans that he had hoped for in Wyoming’s core plan. Greenwire  reported in February that USFWS director Dan Ashe sent a memo to the BLM advising the agency to give the strongest possible protection to sage-grouse “strongholds” on federal lands in Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, and Wyoming.

Tom Christiansen is hoping for another round of higher lek counts in Wyoming this spring, another sign of the population’s episodic increase.

“We had good moisture and a good hatch last year. We anticipate higher lek counts again this year,” he says. “Probably more meaningful than the uptick we saw last year.”

A series of annual upticks leading to a larger periodic peak would be welcome good news. But that peak would still probably be a small fragment of what populations once were. The much more daunting mission of Greater Sage-Grouse recovery, of rejuvenating a sagebrush sea that once ran from the Black Hills to the Cascade Range, still awaits. ◆