Warm weather toying with sage-grouse

With Governor Gary Herbert’s recent executive order directing state agencies to protect and preserve the greater sage-grouse, the bird has been in the spotlight. But male sage-grouse, seeking even more attention, have been seen “strutting on the leks” — a dance-like display to attract females.

According to David Dahlgren, Utah State University Extension wildlife associate, because of the warm weather in recent weeks, there have been multiple reports of people witnessing male sage-grouse strutting.

“While this is early compared to most years, it is not uncommon when warmer weather comes in late winter to have male sage-grouse strut their stuff, so to speak,” he said. “We have heard of concerns about how this early strutting might result in negative impacts to sage-grouse populations, especially if hens show up and start breeding early and then late winter weather comes.”

But just because the boys are showing up does not mean the girls are ready to breed, Dahlgren said. Females are not as easily fooled by the warm weather as males, though they may show up to watch the show.

“The likelihood of early copulations in late January through February is extremely low,” he said. “For many avian species and other wildlife, the onset of reproduction in females is not simply a matter of ambient climatic conditions, but is more closely related to photo period, or the amount of sunlight in a given day.”

Dahlgren said there is likely some leeway for females to lay nests earlier or later in a given timeframe, but photo period is mostly what sets the parameters. Nest initiation could occur a little earlier than previous years if conditions remain unseasonably warm, but not quite this early.

“We hope to enjoy a promising lekking season in Utah this spring, with most populations on upward trends in recent years, but anticipate female peak attendance at leks to be around early April, give or take a week or so,” he said.

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