Greater Sage-Grouse are declining because of numerous impacts to their habitats including roads, oil & gas wells, wind farm facilities, noxious weed infestation and even wildfire. These large birds thrive in big, unbroken sagebrush-dominated landscapes; each time development intrudes, their habitat shrinks.
2017 was a big fire year, with about 1.3 million total acres burned throughout the state. We’re now attempting to understand how much of that land was sage-grouse habitat.
To answer this question, it’s important to know that there are two basic types of sage-grouse habitat: Core Areas, which are the areas of highest conservation value for sage-grouse, where the greatest densities of these birds live; and General Habitat, which are the areas that provide habitat for sage-grouse outside of Core Areas. In Montana, the Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in cooperation with partners, identified about 9.6 million acres Sage-Grouse Core Areas and over 24 million acres of General Habitat.
In 2017, about 55,473 acres of Sage-Grouse Core Habitat burned (0.6%) and 268,556 acres of General Habitat burned (1.1%) in Montana, meaning that even in this bad fire year, only 1.0% of our state’s sage-grouse habitat was affected (324,029 acres of sage-grouse habitat burned out of 33,835,705 acres of sage-grouse habitat found in the state).
Fire can kill or damage sagebrush, which sage-grouse depend upon for food, especially during winter. Fire also degrades or eliminates habitat for breeding, nesting, rearing young, and overwintering. In addition, destroyed sagebrush habitat can take decades to replace, a circumstance that may be impeded by post-fire noxious weed infestations. In short, fire can contribute significantly to the bird’s habitat fragmentation, though in 2017, Montana’s sage-grouse were less impacted by fire than anticipated.