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Montana Animal Field Guide

Montana Field Guides

Greater Sage-Grouse - Centrocercus urophasianus

Species of Concern

Global Rank: G3G4
State Rank: S2

Agency Status
PIF: 1


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Copyright by: The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, all rights reserved.
General Description
[From Schroeder et al. 1999] North America's largest grouse. Males 1.7-2.9 kg and 65-75 cm long, females 1.0-1.8 kg and 50-60 cm long. Both sexes with relatively long, pointed tails, feathered legs, and mottled gray-brown, buff, and black plumage. Males have a blackish-brown throat patch and an inconspicuous yellow eye comb. Both sexes have blackish bellies which contrast sharply with white under-wing coverts when birds in flight. Females appear to dip from side to side while flying.

For a comprehensive review of the conservation status, habitat use, and ecology of this and other Montana bird species, please see Marks et al. 2016, Birds of Montana.

In central Montana, males occupy leks early March to early June with peaks in late April to early May, females attend leks mid-March to late May with peaks in early to mid-April, copulations early April to late May (Eng 1963; Wallestad 1975b; Jenni and Hartzler 1978). Nesting begins mid-April, first eggs hatch in late May with peak by first half of June (42% of nests in south-central Montana hatch prior to mid-June), hatching extends to late June and early July (Eng 1963; Wallestad 1975b; Eustace 2002).

Diagnostic Characteristics
Female Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) can possibly be confused with female or young Greater Sage-Grouse. Female pheasants have a brown belly and bare legs, female Greater Sage-Grouse have a black belly patch and feathered legs. Differ from Sharp-tailed Grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus) in having a black belly and lacking white outer tail feathers. Hybrid Greater Sage-Grouse X Sharp-tailed Grouse infrequent across range but reported in central Montana, southeastern Alberta, western North Dakota (Eng 1971; Kohn and Kobriger 1986; Aldridge et al. 2001).

Species Range
Montana Range

Click the legend blocks above to view individual ranges.

Montana Distribution

Western Hemisphere Range


Summary of Observations Submitted for Montana
Number of Observations: 14567

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density


(direct evidence "B")

(indirect evidence "b")

No evidence of Breeding
(transient "t")

(regular observations "W")

(at least one obs. "w")


(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

May be resident year round or make seasonal migratory movements. Seasonal movements vary greatly and depend upon a number of factors including gender, behavior, seasonal habitat quality, and weather. Movements slow (< 1 km/day) and meandering, but may be as much as 25 km in 5 days (Connelly et al. 1988; Schroeder et al. 1999).

Considered non-migratory in central Montana, though small movements (generally < 16 km) made between breeding/nesting and wintering areas; winter range of females 1046-3104 hectares, with 3/4 of daily movements < 1.2 km linear distance (Eng and Schladweiler 1972; Wallestad 1975b). Males in spring move daily up to 1.8 km from leks (Wallestad and Schladweiler 1974); distance moved by females from leks to nesting site averaged 2.5-2.8 km, ranged from < 0.8 km to > 4.8 km (Wallestad and Pyrah 1974). Daily movements of summer broods averaged 0.4-0.8 km (Wallestad 1971).

Elsewhere in Montana longer annual migratory movements reported. In Valley County, marked females moved 21.5-122.1 km between breeding and wintering grounds; once on wintering grounds females moved an aveage linear distance each day of 0.25 km but up to 2.5 km (Tack et al. 2011). In Beaverhead County, males departing leks often moved 30-50 km, sometimes in circular route with linear distance from lek only 13-16 km (as little as 3 km), but other males moved up to 80 km between lek and wintering area. Females usually remained within 10 km of leks where they bred, but may move from lek > 20 km to wintering area (Roscoe 2002).

Closely associated with sagebrush habitat types. Adapted to a broad mosaic throughout range, including relatively tall sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata, A. tripartita, A. cana), relatively low sagebrush (A. arbuscula, A. nova), forb-rich mosaics with low and tall sagebrush, riparian meadows, steppe, scrub willow, sagebrush savanna (with juniper, ponderosa pine, aspen). Use altered habitats, such as alfalfa, wheat, crested wheatgrass, but degree depends on association with native habitat. Leks in sites with reduced herbaceous and shrub cover surrounded by potential nesting habitat, often on broad ridgetops, grassy swales, disturbed sites, dry lake beds, cultivated fields. Nesting habitat usually in thick shrub cover dominated by sagebrush, sometimes grass or other shrub species. Brood habitat a mosaic of sagebrush, riparian meadow, greasewood, alfalfa, grain fields, rich in forbs and insects. Winter range similar to breeding range and dominated by sagebrush cover types (Schroeder et al. 1999). Annual variation in habitat use in Montana similar to most surrounding areas (Dusek at al. 2002); sagebrush removal results in decline or loss of sage-grouse (Martin 1970; Wallestad 1975a; Swenson et al. 1987).

Leks in Montana often in clearings surrounded by sagebrush, including natural clearings, old burns, clearings around abandoned homesteads. When not on lek, males in central Montana feed and loaf predominantly where sagebrush cover is 20-50% (mean = 32%), avoid sagebrush cover < 10% (Wallestad and Schladweiler 1974; Wallestad 1975b; Dusek at al. 2002). In Beaverhead County, some males moved from leks to irrigated hayfields/wetlands with adjacent sagebrush patches, others to a variety of sagebrush habitats (Wyoming big sage, mountain big sage, three-tip sage), eventually to high elevation dense sagebrush (25-35% canopy cover) surrounded by forest (Roscoe 2002).

Females establish nests where sagebrush cover exceeds 15%, height of sagebrush averages 40.4 cm (Wallestad and Pyrah 1974). Similar results for Powder River Basin (including southeastern Montana), with average sagebrush canopy cover of 19.1% at nests; sites much more likely to be used for nesting when 75% of area within 100 m (patches of sage at least 200 m diameter) was high-density sagebrush (> 40% canopy cover) (Doherty et al. 2010); 99% of 258 nests in Phillips County established under shrubs, most of these (92%) under sagebrush (Moynahan et al. 2007). In Beaverhead County, hens nest in some cases near irrigated hayfields/wet meadows with adjacent sagebrush patches (Roscoe 2002).

Brood habitat in central Montana dominated by relatively open stands of sagebrush. In one study (Peterson 1970), 100% of brood occurrences in sagebrush in June, declining to 50% by September (with corresponding increase in use of grass and greasewood); average cover of sagebrush on brood sites increased from 6% in June to 12% in August , with average height of sagebrush ranging from 40.6 cm in June to 50.8 cm in September. In a second study, (Wallestad 1971, 1975b) sagebrush cover at brood sites averaged 14% in June, 10% in August, 21% in September, with overall forb cover in two years of 17-27% and grass cover 47-51%; mean shrub heights were 17.8 cm in June, 25.4 cm in August. In Beaverhead County, Montana brood canopy cover during June-September averaged 24% shrubs (mostly sagebrush), 35% grass, 22% forbs, with average height of sagebrush 22.9-38.1 cm at brood locations (Martin 1970).

Winter habitat in central Montana generally relatively tall, dense, and extensive sagebrush stands with 20% or greater mean canopy cover (range= 6.4-53.9%) for both feeding/loafing and roosting sites (about 78-82% of all observations fall in this cover category); height of sagebrush for feeding/loafing and roosting sites averages about 25.4 cm (Eng and Schladweiler 1972; Wallestad 1975b). More open stands used as weather moderates prior to lek formation. In Powder River Basin (including Bighorn, Rosebud, Powder River counties, Montana), use areas where sagebrush and grass >95% of total vegetation cover on landscape, with sagebrush cover averaging 75% (Doherty et al. 2008). Tall dense stands of sagebrush the primary winter habitat in Beaverhead County (Roscoe 2002).

Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of "observations versus availability of habitat".
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were listed as associated with an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not listed as associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignment of common versus occasional association.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species' known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2012.  Mammals of Montana.  Second edition.  Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana.  429 pp.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana's amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
Adults eat leaves, buds, stems, flowers, fruit, and insects, but mainly leaves year round. Do not possess a muscular gizzard so do not rely on seeds. Sagebrush essential; sagebrush dominant in late autumn, winter, and early spring, sagebrush and forbs in summer, with insects mostly a minor summer component. Juvenile diet includes a larger proportion of insects (Orthoptera, Coleoptera, Hymenoptera), especially during first three weeks of life, importance of forbs increaseing with juvenile age (Schroeder et al. 1999).

Foods of adults from central Montana (Fergus and Petroleum counties) about 97% plant matter and 3% animal matter annually (Wallestad 1975b; Wallested et al. 1975). Include in order of annual frequency and volume the plants Artemisia tridentata, Artemisia frigida, Lactuca serriola, Tragopogon dubius, Taraxacum officinale, Grindelia squarrosa, Achillea millefolium, Trifolium repens, Melilotus officinalis, Artemisia ludoviciana, Artemisia cana, Symphyotrichum species, and Medicago sativa, and at least three orders of insects (Hymenoptera, Orthoptera, Coleoptera). Insects may comprise a substantial portion of summer diet during short time periods; remains of 94 grasshoppers (Orthoptera) found in the crop and stomach of an unaged and unsexed individual from Petroleum County in early August (Moos 1941). Adults in Beaverhead County, Montana fed during late summer (July-September) primarily on Artemisia and Taraxacum (about 80% of total volume), but also included Achillea, Antennaria, Astragalus, Erigeron, Geum, Trifolium, and grass, and traces of two orders of insects (Hymenoptera and Coleoptera) (Martin 1970).

Foods of juveniles in Petroleum County, Montana vary somewhat with age, include about 75% plant matter, 25% animal matter (Peterson 1970). Include in rough order of frequency and volume the forbs Taraxacum officianale, Tragopogon dubius, Lactuca serriola, Lepidium densiflorum, Artemesia frigida, Grindelia squarrosa, Medicago sativa, Camelina microcarpa, Achillea millefolium, and Vicia americana, the shrubs Artemisia tridentata and Rhus trilobata, the grass Triticum aestivum, and at least three orders of insects (Orthoptera, Coleoptera, Hymenoptera).

Lek activity extends from March to May. Mating sites move from year to year; nests are located 0.2 to 6.5 miles from the lek (Harrison 1978).

Reproductive Characteristics
In southwest Montana 34% of hens observed had broods, with the average size being 4.3 (Martin 1965). Courtship starts in early March and persists to nesting in May (Davis 1961). Egg records are probably similar to Wyoming: April 18 to July 27 (Johnsgard 1986).

On September 22 2015, after review of the best available scientific and commercial information, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the Greater Sage-Grouse did not warrant listing protections under the Endangered Species Act at the time because the primary threats to populations had been ameliorated by conservation efforts implemented by Federal, State, and private land owners. Additional information on the species' management can be found on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Species Account

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • Connelly, J. W., H. W. Browers, and R. J. Gates. 1988. Seasonal movements of sage grouse in southeastern Idaho. Journal of Wildlife Management 52:116-122.
    • Davis, C.V. 1961. A distributional study of the birds of Montana. Ph.D. dissertation. Oregon State University, Corvallis. 462 pp.
    • Harrison, C. 1978. A field guide to the nests, eggs and nestlings of North American birds. Collins, Cleveland.
    • Johnsgard, P.A. 1986. Birds of the Rocky Mountains: with particular reference to national parks in the northern Rocky Mountain region. Colorado Associated University Press, Boulder, CO.
    • Marks, J.S., P. Hendricks, and D. Casey. 2016. Birds of Montana. Arrington, VA. Buteo Books. 659 pages.
    • Martin, N. S. 1965. Effects of chemical control of sagebrush on the occurrence of sage grouse in southwestern Montana. M.S. thesis. Montana State University, Bozeman. 38 pp.
    • Peterson, J. G. 1969. The food habits and summer distribution of juvenile sage grouse in central Montana. M.S. thesis. Montana State University, Bozeman. 39 pp.
    • Schroeder, M.A., J.R. Young, and C.E. Braun. 1999. Greater Sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus). Species Account Number 425. The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Retrieved 3/25/2008 from The Birds of North America Online database.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1998. Check-list of North American birds, 7th edition. American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C. 829 p.
    • Anonymous. 1959. Sage grouse. Montana Wildlife. November.
    • Anonymous. 1963. Sheep Creek sage grouse. Montana Wildlife. August:20-22.
    • Bechard, Mark. 1986. Early Montana naturalists and oologists. Blue Jay. 44(1):20-30.
    • Berry, J. D. and R. L. Eng. 1985. Interseasonal movements and fidelity to seasonal use areas by female sage grouse. J. Wildl. Manage. 49(1):237-240.
    • Bramblett, Robert G., and Alexander V. Zale. 2002. Montana Prairie Riparian Native Species Report. Montana Cooperative Fishery Research Unit, Montana State University - Bozeman.
    • Braun, C. E., Oedekoven, O. O., Aldridge, C. L. . 2002. Oil and gas development in western North America: effects on sagebrush steppe avifauna with particular emphasis on sage grouse. Transactions of the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference 67 :337-349.
    • Braun, C. E., T. Britt, and R. O. Wallestad. 1977. Guidelines for maintenance of sage grouse habitat. Wildl. Soc. Bull. 5:99-106.
    • Braun, C.E. 1995. Distribution and status of Sage Grouse in Colorado. Prairie Nat. 27(1): 1-8.
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    • Connelly, J. W., M. A. Schroeder, A. R. Sands, and C. E. Braun. 2000. Guidelines to manage Sage-Grouse populations and their habitats. Wildlife Society Bulletin. 28: 967-985.
    • Dalke, P. D., D. B. Pyrah, D. C. Stanton, J. E. Crawford, and E. F. Schlatterer. 1963. Ecology, productivity, and management of sage grouse in Idaho. J. Wildl. Manage. 27:811-841.
    • Decker Coal Company., 1978, 1978 Sage Grouse Report. In Decker Coal Company West Pit Permit. Vol. 3. 26.4.304(10-11), 305, 306, and 307. Updated Rules Rewrite, July 1, 1991.
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    • ECON, Inc. (Ecological Consulting Service), Helena, MT., 1975, Colstrip 10 x 20 Area wildlife and wildlife habitat annual monitoring report, 1975. Proj. 71-23-A. December 31, 1975.
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    • Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder’s handbook: a field guide to the natural history of North American birds. Simon and Schuster Inc. New York. 785 pp.
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    • Eng, R. L. 1952. Sage grouse population trends and breeding potential. Montana Fish and Game Department. P-R Quarterly Reports, 3(1):61-64, 3(2): 100-103, 3(3):44-49, 3(4):56-62,4(4):31-33,5(1):19-27,5(1):28-35.
    • Eng, R. L. 1953. The sage grouse season. Montana Wildlife. Winter.
    • Eng, R. L. 1954-55. Use of aerial coverage in sage grouse strutting ground counts. Proc. W. Assn. St. Game & Fish Comm. 34:231-233. 2 copies
    • Eng, R. L. 1955. A method for obtaining Sage Grouse age and sex ratios from wings. J. Wildl. Manage. 19(2):267-272.
    • Eng, R. L. 1959-1964. Factors affecting, sage grouse production. Montana Fish and Game Department. Job Compl. Rep. Proj. W-91-R-l through 6, Job II-A.
    • Eng, R. L. 1961. Sage grouse - spring strutting activity. Nat. 2(2): 15-20.
    • Eng, R. L. 1963. Western states sage grouse questionnaire. Montana Fish and Game Department. VIII. 15 pp.
    • Eng, R. L. 1971. Two hybrid sage grouse X sharp-tailed grouse from central Montana. Condor 73:491-493.
    • Eng, R. L.  1956.  Sage Grouse production and movement study. Montana Fish and Game Department Job Completion Report, Project W-74-R-1, Helena.
    • Eng, R. L.  1963.  Observations on the breeding biology of male Sage Grouse. Journal of Wildlife Management 27:841-846.
    • Eng, R. L., and P. Schladweiler.  1972.  Sage Grouse winter movements and habitat use in central Montana. Journal of Wildlife Management 36:141-146.
    • Eng, R. L., E. J. Pitcher, S. J. Scott, and R. J. Greene. 1979. Minimizing the effect of surface coal mining on a sage grouse population by a directed shift of breeding activities. Pp. 464-468 in The Mitagation Symposium. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mt. Forest and Range Exp. Sta., Fort Collins, Colorado.
    • Fjell, Alan K., and Brian R. Mahan., 1985, Peabody Coal Company Big Sky Mine, Rosebud County, MT. Wildlife monitoring report: 1984 field season. February 1985.
    • Graham, Dean, and Craig Swick., 1977, A Field evaluation of the cyclone seeder for reducing Richardson ground squirrel populations causing damage in central Montana . August 1977.
    • Hartzler, J. E. 1972. An analysis of sage grouse lek behavior. Ph.D dissertation. University of Montana, Missoula. 234 pp.
    • Johnsgard, P.A. 1992. Birds of the Rocky Mountains with particular reference to national parks in the northern Rocky Mountain region. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. xi + 504 pp.
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    • Martin, N. S. 1970. Sagebrush control related to habitat and Sage Grouse occurrence. Journal of Wildlife Management 34:313-320.
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    • Pyrah, D., and R. Wallestad. 1974. Movement and nesting of sage grouse hens in Central Montana. J. Wildl. Manage. 38:630-633.
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    • Western Energy Co., Colstrip, MT. Unpub., 1983, Western Energy Company's Application for Amendment to Surface Mining Permit NO. 8003, Area B: sections 7, 8, 17,18 T1N R41E, sections 12, 13 T1N R40E, Mining Expansion. March 1983.
    • Western Energy Co., Colstrip, MT., 1981, Western Energy Company Rosebud Mine, Colstrip, Montana: Annual Wildlife Report, 1981.
    • Weydemeyer, W., and V. L. Marsh. 1936. The bird life of Lake Bowdoin, Montana. Condor 38:185-198.
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Citation for data on this website:
Greater Sage-Grouse — Centrocercus urophasianus.  Montana Field Guide.  Montana Natural Heritage Program and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.  Retrieved on January 19, 2017, from