To print this page, select File-> Print from your browser menu.

Songbirds in the Sagebrush Sea

Ellie M. Cohen


In Wyoming, PRBO biologist Aaron Holms (in red shirt) showed visitors the region's vulnerable habitats.

The view was awe-inspiring as we looked eastward toward the Wind River Mountains. These jagged peaks, towering almost three miles high, form the western boundary of the Upper Green River Basin in Wyoming. An endless sea of water eons ago, this arid, high-elevation plain is now an endless sea of sagebrush.

We were there to learn about PRBO's research into impacts posed by ever-growing natural gas developments on sagebrush-dependent songbirds, their reproductive success and survival.

Our study species gradually revealed themselves under the heat of the midday sun at this reference study site. Sage Thrashers brought food to their fledglings, several Brewers Sparrows emerged for a quick snack, and finally a lone Sage Sparrow called.

On a nearby ridge, a stately pronghorn, one of the fastest mammals on earth, moseyed along and ignored our presence. We found a Burrowing Owl's tunnel entrance littered with tiny bird bones and other prey remains. A baby short-horned lizard hid in the cool shade of mountain big sage.

Allison King, PRBO staff biologist from New York who now makes her home in Pinedale, Wyoming (population 1412!), has worked on this project since 2002. She guided us to our next stop, a study transect in the middle of a 45-square-mile natural gas development called Jonah Field. She and Megan Leach, a 2006 intern, knew every nest location. They were beaming with enthusiasm and pride as we toured their "office," when a magnificent Sage Grouse suddenly flew out of the brush and off into the distance.

What does the future hold for these birds and this quintessential American landscape?Aaron Holmes, PRBO's highly accomplished Shrubsteppe Program Director and a doctoral candidate at Oregon State University, explained that hundreds of natural gas wells have been built at Jonah Field over the past few years and that thousands more are planned.

While he and others have documented long-term declines in sagebrush birds across the Intermountain West, Aaron believes that it may be possible for natural gas extraction and sagebrush-dependent birds to safely coexist but that more research needs to be conducted.

For example, our findings show that nest sites are concentrated in thicker sagebrush stands along washes, which perhaps offer more protection from predators. Future wells and roads could be sited away from these nesting concentrations. Another concern is the increased presence of ravens that prey on songbird eggs and nestlings. None were present in the reference site, but dozens could be seen perching on the gas well structures. Simple and inexpensive measures to discourage ravens could be put in place.

It may seem odd to be excited about a field trip to natural gas wells, but I was thrilled to have had this unique opportunity to learn from our outstanding staff amidst the fragrant vistas of the sagebrush sea!

Their hard work exemplifies the commitment to excellence by PRBO staff and interns, whose work is highlighted in this Observer. Their efforts are at the core of PRBO's success in advancing conservation through studies of bird ecology and ecosystems, from Alaska to Antarctica, on land and at sea!