Walking through the blistering heat of the silent scablands of the Columbia Basin, one may be startled by the soft, yet loud wut of a frightened bird. In March of 1806, Meriwether Lewis described in his journal this “Cock of the Plains.” it was “in great abundance from the entrance of the S.E fork of the Columbia to that of Clark’s River.” He also noted that the “bird is about two-thirds the size of a turkey.” The bird documented by Lewis is one of the most important birds of the Great Plains, Great Basin, and Plateau regions of the United States, the sage grouse. It is named for the plant it requires for survival, yet the plant and other creatures depend on the grouse for their continued existence.
The grouse survives off the sage itself, both for food and for shelter. The sage provides a dense, shaded area that keeps predators away from nests and keeps the grouse cool during the scorching summer days.
It is remarkable, though, that the mating rituals of the sage grouse also allow for other species to survive the harsh and dry climate. While the male sage grouse struts and scuffles with other grouse, its sharp claws aerate and till the top soil, similar to a plow. Due to the fact that the majority of this behavior is exhibited near the sage plants, other seeds that fall under the shadows of the sage are able to take, so that more grasses and plants grow. Along with the sage, these grasses become food sources for deer and antelope, as well as domestic invasive species such as cows and sheep.
Today the sage grouse is an endangered species and its habitat continues to shrink. The reason for the destruction of the sagebrush is the growth of the human population and the increase in farming and ranching in rural areas. The shrinking population of grouse also forces the decline in the population of the other animals listed and even removes a food source utilized by domesticated animals.