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Save the Sagehen

Cartoon of strutting sagehen

The Sagehen is plump, prefers walking to flying and often is likened to the chicken. But our beloved mascot, known to ornithologists as the sage grouse, has still managed to garner quite a reputation for its colorful sex life.

The bird’s mating ritual unfolds in spring when the males gather at breeding grounds known as leks. The sage cocks strut, fight for position and fan their tail feathers in a scene that leaves observers straining for adjectives and analogies. The most impressive move is when male birds swish their wings and puff up the large air sacs that hang on their chests. The swelling sacs create an unusual noise that draws descriptions ranging from something akin to the sound of water dripping in a cave to “loud gurgling pops reminiscent of whales burping underwater,” as a Los Angeles Times article put it. “I can’t even begin to describe it,” says conservationist Mark Salvo. “It’s just kooky.” Kooky the ritual may be, but this elaborate performance inevitably attracts the females—and the festivities, beginning before sunrise each day, carry on for weeks.

Yet all this free love on the range hasn’t prevented the sage grouse population in the Western U.S. from declining dramatically over the last century. What these lusty land-birds need, say environmentalists, is protection. 

The largest grouse in North America, Centrocercus urophasianus once ranged over 16 states and were widely hunted as “sage chickens.” Today, loss of habitat and other factors have constricted the grouse’s range to 11 states, including some of the eastern edges of California. Development, overgrazing, off-roading and encroachment by non-native grasses all pose threats. The bird depends on sagebrush, both for its diet and nesting sites, and is considered perhaps the best indicator species for the health of the “Sagebrush Sea,” as Salvo dubs the West’s millions of acres of brush-covered steppe. Salvo, who heads the Sagebrush Sea Campaign, says the government must intervene to set aside more habitats for the bird.

Just how much trouble the bird is in is a matter of debate. Tony Apa, a research biologist for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, says the chances of the sage grouse going extinct across the West are low, though the bird is certainly struggling in some peripheral areas of its range. Definitive grouse population figures are hard to come by, with estimates ranging from 120,000 to 500,000, according to Kerry Reese, professor of wildlife resources and head of the Fish and Wildlife Resources Depart­ment at University of Idaho. His best guess is that there are about 300,000 sage grouse across the West. That compares with estimates that the bird’s historic population of 1 million or more. “They’re not endangered,” says Reese. “But they’re certainly not in good shape.”

A year ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rejected environmentalists’ petition to list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. Many politicians, ranchers and business interests throughout the region opposed listing for fear of the restrictions it could bring for everything from cattle-grazing to energy development. They argued conservation could be best handled by local groups responding to local conditions. Environmentalists complained that the decision not to list the grouse was based on politics instead of science. Regardless, just the threat of listing has helped inspire a scramble to save this strange bird. 

      The core of the save-the-sage-grouse effort relies on 70 or so local working groups—consisting of ranchers, fish and wildlife officials, conservation groups and others—that come up with measures to protect the birds, sometimes with the help of a paid facilitator. Many of those measures involve adjusting cattle-grazing patterns to reduce the impact on the sagebrush and protecting water sources the grouse depends on in summer. In some cases, habitat is set aside through conservation easements or outright government purchase of the land.

Another part of their work is simply to identify the most critical habitat areas for the birds so that new roads and power lines can be built away from them, according to Reese. (Power lines provide the perfect perch for the grouse’s greatest natural foe, the raptor.) These working groups have been used before to help protect species, but never on this scale. “They’re being proactive as a way to help keep the bird from being listed,” Reese says.

Salvo, however, suggests these local efforts may amount to ineffective half-measures. He advocates ending grazing altogether on more land, with the government in some cases buying up public land grazing allotments from ranchers willing to give them up. He alludes to the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in Southern Oregon, where livestock grazing was stopped more than a decade ago and grouse population has since exploded. Salvo also recommends more restrictions on energy development in the most critical habitat. “We have to make the difficult decisions,” says Salvo. “Or we’ve otherwise made the decision to say goodbye to the sage grouse.”

      Washington State has listed its sage-grouse population as threatened, and the bird’s numbers have dwindled to fewer than 900, according to recent estimates. There, even the U.S. Army, has been enlisted to help protect the grouse—and its love life. Many of Washington’s remaining sage grouse happen to live in a live-fire military training ground. So the Yakima Training Center has instituted rules prohibiting soldiers from conducting maneuvers near leks and nesting sites during the birds’ mating season. Workers at the base also plant some 300,000 sagebrush seedlings annually in an attempt to restore habitat.

      In California, the sage grouse lives in a few eastern areas such as the Mono Basin near the Nevada border. Environ­mentalists, including Salvo’s group, have petitioned for the bird in California and western Nevada to be declared a separate species and protected under the Endangered Species Act. They cite genetic differences between the Mono Basin birds and the wider sage grouse population. 

High-schoolers have played an important part in researching these California-Nevada birds. In the Nevada ranching town of Yerington, teacher Steve Pellegrini’s science students in recent years spent long nights out on the steppe as part of the effort to save the sage grouse. They relied on bright lights and blaring boom boxes to stun the birds long enough to net them and draw blood samples to use for DNA analysis. (The boom boxes are typically set to radio static, though Pellegrini says the heavy-metal group AC/DC also does the trick.) Pellegrini, who recently retired from the school, says students were always amazed by how big these birds are. “They come off the ground with a lot of noise,” he says. “They’re a pretty exciting animal.”

That’s a common sentiment. Pomona’s choice of mascot may draw snickers from people who don’t know the bird, but researchers and conservationist share a sense of awe about the sage grouse. It’s not just the grouse’s impressive size: males can grow more than 2 feet long and weigh more than 8 pounds. The conversation always seems to turn to its love life. “They are the most well developed example of that kind of mating style of any species in the world,” says Reese.

And all the mating action takes place on the leks, which are simply open spaces among the sagebrush. But the sage cocks are quite attached to these pick-up spots. Some ancestral leks remain in use for centuries, and biologists tell tales of grouse returning after alfalfa fields or airport runways have covered over leks. In spring, groups of males will gather on the leks for six to eight weeks. Their reproductive instinct is so strong that some will stay out on the open leks overnight. Some show up early enough in the season that there’s still snow on the ground. Often, males lose a good percentage of their body weight from all their strutting and other exertions to attract the females. “It’s a stressful time,” says Reese.

The prospect of sex also brings the threat of death. Exposed on the open leks, the sage cocks face their greatest mortality risk—vulnerable to golden eagles and raptors swooping in from above. And there’s more bad news for the guys. It is the females who always choose their partners, and they tend to all be interested in the same few dominate males. One male can be responsible for 90 percent of the action.

Reese, who has overseen students’ research on sage grouse at the University of Idaho for two decades, told a group of freshmen that “there are certain things in the world they need to do before they die”—and one of those things is seeing the male sage grouse in full display. Besides, a little publicity might help the birds’ plight. “The more people know about sage grouse,’’ says Reese, “the better off the birds are.”

That sort of thinking led to the creation four years ago of DuBois Grouse Days in the eastern Idaho ranching town (pronounced Doo-boys) with a population of 642. The idea was to help people learn about the bird. The festivities include roast-beef banquet in the town hall, silent auction and presentations about the grouse and its habitat by wildlife experts. 

But the weekend’s “main event” arrives before dawn on Saturday, when participants board yellow school buses and drive out to the grouse’s breeding grounds to see what U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist Curtis Keetch calls their “dancing.” People watch the action with binoculars from aboard the bus to avoid scaring off the birds. Camouflaged photo blinds also are available for birders to get close-up shots. Most of what they’ll see is the male birds strutting their stuff. They also might catch a glimpse of the females maneuvering their way through the outer rings of less desirable males to the dominant ones in the center. It’s easy to miss the actual act, which lasts all of five seconds. The distinctive plopping of the male’s air sacs can be heard from a mile away. “It’s visual and it’s audio,” says Keetch.

First-time spectators are thrilled. “They’re like kids in a candy shop,’’ says Keetch. “They have a big smile on their face.” And some birders return to watch the ritual year after year. Grouse Days’ attendance last year rose to about 150 people, many of them birders from across the West. Keetch has plans to move the 2006 event (April 7-8) into the town’s high school gymnasium to accommodate more people, since he’s expecting upwards of 300. Eventually, DuBois may turn Grouse Days into a weeklong festival. One problem is this two-gas-station, two-restaurant town has fewer than 15 motel rooms.  Mayor Keith Tweedie says DuBois needs a larger motel. He means for the people. Maybe the birds should get one too.


Sidebar: The Word on Our Bird

Theories abound, but nobody knows for certain how the Sagehen became our mascot. We do know that the sports teams were called the Huns in the early 1900s. One tale attributes the switch from Huns to Hens to a local newspaper typo that somehow stuck. Another story has the College making the convenient one-letter change due to the World War I fight with Germany. 

Ben Belletto, Pomona-Pitzer men’s tennis coach and sports information director, is the latest to delve into the mystery, with inconclusive results. He started digging through the files last year. He’s skeptical of the typo story, in part because of the distance between “e” and “u” on the keyboard. 

To further confuse the issue, a search of the Los Angeles Times historical database shows the Sagehen name is used as early as 1911. A sample headline: “Tiger Skinned by Pomona: Occidental Fine Doormat for Sage Hens.” The article was written by Owen R. Bird. We’re not making this up.

Huns and Sage Hen both were used by the Times for several years, sometimes interchangeably in the same story. And Huns still gets some use even after the U.S. enters World War I, though it does appear to die out by 1919, perhaps lending credence to the war theory. And sometime in subsequent decades, the mascot became personified as Cecil Sagehen. We’re not even going to try to unravel that one.

In another strange twist, it seems the Sagehen never lived in Claremont or the Los Angeles Basin. The birds’ closest historical habitat is in the Mono Basin, according to Kerry Reese, a University of Idaho professor of wildlife resources. Some of the birds still survive in that area, a more than a 250-mile drive from campus.

While revered by many alumni, the Sagehen name has been hard to accept for some newcomers to campus. In 1985, the mascot matter came to a student vote, with suggested alternatives ranging from the Rambos to the Piranhas to the Sagehuns. But the most popular alternative, according to The Student Life, was the Burning Owl of Death. Still, Cecil Sagehen survived 117-75.

Any dissatisfaction may stem from a lack of knowledge about this impressive bird. Professor Reese’s daughter, Andrea Reese ’03, attended Pomona and he remembers being told on a campus visit that the bird was extinct. He wound up writing a letter to The Student Life to set the record straight. Having overseen research of the sage grouse for two decades, Reese believes Pomona has picked a fine symbol. 

So let’s stop the, um, grousing about our mascot.