Natural Perspectives: Our trek to the lek

Vic and I were in the Eastern Sierras a few weeks ago.

He was leading an Audubon birding trip, primarily to see greater sage-grouse on their courtship display grounds, which are called leks. The lek is just north of Crowley Lake, a few miles outside the town of Mammoth Lakes.

A lek is a flat grassy area that grouse choose for their springtime courtship. Males gather on the lek to strut their stuff, literally. They strut, stamp their feet, and inflate air sacs on their chests, making big booming sounds.

This attracts the females, who choose only the dominant males to mate with. Male and female grouse are called cocks and hens. The dominant male, called the master cock, mates with 80% to 90% of the hens.

Greater sage-grouse court and mate at dawn, so we needed to be at the lek before dawn to see their courtship. Since we were staying in Bishop, we had to get up at 4:30 a.m. to be there on time. Normally, a trip to the lek at that hour is a frigid one, but this year temperatures were downright comfortable. We had all shed our coats by the next stop on our birding itinerary.

Greater sage-grouse are found only in sagebrush habitats of the Great Basin states of the American West. Unlike other grouse, they lack a muscular gizzard. This means that they can't digest seeds. So what they eat is sagebrush, which makes up 60% of their diet. During the summer, they supplement their plant diet with insects.

At one time, greater sage-grouse numbers were high — an estimated 16 million back in the year 1900. But in the 20th century, greater sage-grouse numbers plummeted to only about 200,000 at present.

One problem has been widespread expansion of coal, oil, and natural gas extraction in many Western states. This has affected their habitat and resulted in a decline of the population.

Many experts would like to see these grouse included on the endangered species list. But under the George W. Bushadministration, greater sage-grouse were denied protection under the Endangered Species Act by Julia A. MacDonald, an Interior Department deputy secretary. She was a civil engineer, not a biologist.

After an investigation in 2007, a court overturned her decision, noting that she was neither a scientist nor a sage grouse expert, and that she had a well-documented history of intervening in the listing process. Her conduct was called a "blemish on the Fish and Wildlife Service" by one of her superiors. Because so much of her work had to be redone, her actions cost the Department of Interior hundreds of thousands of dollars.

After a second review in 2010 under the Obama administration, the Greater Sage-grouse has been assigned a status as "warranted but precluded." This means that inclusion on the list of endangered species is warranted, but that it is essentially on a waiting list behind other more critically threatened species. The problem is a lack of money for endangered species protection.

Unfortunately, politics often trumps science in decisions like these. The science should speak for itself. If a species is declining and is in danger of becoming extinct, it should warrant protection no matter how much people want to develop the habitat that the species needs to survive.

If a population is isolated geographically such that it cannot interbreed with others of the same species, it is by default a separate species. The greater sage-grouse population of Mono Basin is isolated from the grouse of the rest of the Great Basin, and may be declared a distinct species some day in the future. The Gunnison sage-grouse population has already been broken off as a distinct species; the Mono Basin grouse deserve the same treatment.

After the birding trip with the group was over, Vic and I did some scouting with Ken Wells, a local birder in the Mammoth area. Ken showed us something that I thought that I would never see in the Eastern Sierras. Beavers living along the Owens River!

Beavers were nearly wiped out during the fur trapping heydays of the 1800s. Beaver hats were the fashion rage and hatters couldn't get enough of their fur. The fur was shaved off and made into felt, from which the hats were made.

Even as early as the 1630s, English, French, Spanish and Dutch colonists shipped between 5,000 and 8,000 pelts a year back to Europe. If hatters hadn't switched to silk, beavers might well have been trapped to extinction.

As beavers began to be trapped out, the California legislature extended complete protection to them in 1911. But beavers build dams, and they interfered with the irrigation ditches of farmers. Trapping was allowed for beavers that were destroying levees or interfering with irrigation operations, and the population again plummeted. In the early 1940s, the beaver population of the entire state of California was an estimated 1,400 animals. Trapping was again limited and by the 1950s, the population had risen to about 20,000.

No beaver occurred naturally in the Eastern Sierra. They were introduced from the Western Sierras to the eastern side in the 1940s, but they have not done terribly well in the dry Eastern Sierras. This visit marked the first time that Vic and I had even seen signs of beaver in this largely desert area. We found their lodges, dams, and recently chewed trees, but the beavers themselves sleep during the day. They stayed hidden from our view.

The plight of the Mono Basin greater sage-grouse and the beavers remind us of how tenuous a hold so many species have on life. It is only by constant diligence on the part of scientists and environmentalists that these and many other species cling to existence.

So, many species hang on by just a thread these days. It is up to those of us who care to protect them.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists.

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