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Research: Sage Grouse Umbrella Helps Other Bird Species

Sage grouse conservation efforts benefit species such as the sagebrush sparrow, above, according to new research.(Domonic Sherony/flickr)
Sage grouse conservation efforts benefit species such as the sagebrush sparrow, above, according to new research.(Domonic Sherony/flickr)
November 7, 2016

MISSOULA, Mont. – The sage grouse is a big topic of discussion on lands in the West, but a new study says some other birds might get protection underneath the grouse's feathers.

Researchers found three songbirds that live alongside the grouse have benefited from efforts to conserve sagebrush and grouse habitat throughout 11 western states, including Montana.

Patrick Donnelly, a landscape ecologist at Intermountain West Joint Venture and one of the research authors, says conservation efforts are focused on areas with lots of sage grouse and his research shows the effects of that on the other birds.

"We found the correlation with songbirds was even greater,” he points out. “So where we have more grouse, we have even more songbirds. And our conservation strategies are focusing on those very specific places. It's a win-win for both species."

The research focused on three species of songbirds: the Brewer's Sparrow, sage thrasher and sagebrush sparrow.

Donnelly says there are 170 sagebrush species that could benefit from being under the umbrella of grouse conservation efforts.

Sage grouse face a number of threats in the West. Donnelly says an invasive grass known as cheatgrass establishes itself in the wake of wildfires, which have grown in frequency. Sagebrush and other native plants are then pushed out of the habitat.

Donnelly says invasive plants, along with man-made threats such as energy development, fragment the environment.

He adds when thinking about the investments made to conserve grouse, it's important to think about the larger umbrella helping many other species.

"It's not so much a sage grouse approach in that context, but an ecosystem approach,” he stresses. “And so we're transitioning from this single species of sage grouse to a broader sagebrush ecosystem conservation perspective, and this study with songbirds allows us to tell that story more effectively than we have been in the past."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identifies all three species of songbirds as species of conservation concern because of declines in their populations.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT