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  • Lauren Marsh

The Importance of Lekking Grounds

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

Photo by Sarah Walker

In the dark glowing moments before the sun rises, a small group of us pile into Tom’s truck and bounce down a dirt road to a seemingly unremarkable opening in the sagebrush. As light deepens and the desert songbirds reach their morning

crescendo, we can barely make out dark bodies floating across low growing grasses. The male greater sage-grouse dance in full display, chests popping, tail feathers illuminated in the early light. As our lead for the day, former Wyoming

Game and Fish sage-grouse biologist Tom Christiansen shares these sites, known as leks, have potentially been in use for as long as sage-grouse have been in the area. That’s 10,000 years, give or take a little. Today’s birds then connect us, through their displays, to thousands of prior generations of grouse, and hopefully, to thousands more in the future. On another pre-sunrise morning, Northern Arapaho Tribal member Stormy Friday shared her thoughts while we listened to meadowlarks and watched lekking sage-grouse:

Stormy Friday - Photo by Lauren Marsh

“I just imagine traveling through this back in the day. Just traveling. Setting up [camp]. Just connecting. I think about that a lot. Like, what would I be doing? …I feel so connected. Like, oh my gosh, you know, they used to do this back in the day.”

Not only that, but they still do. The lek site we visited in the Red Desert is the ancestral homelands and migratory territory of more than 30 Tribal Nations. This landscape is still frequented by members of those Tribes for traditional and modern uses, maintaining another link between thousands of generations in the past and the future. Preserving Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge (ITEK) is one way to make sure these birds have a future in Wyoming. How so? In the words of Robin Wall


Indigenous peoples are the stewards of fully 4 percent of the land area of the United States and represent some 700 distinct communities possessing detailed knowledge of the biota of their homelands. Native American land holdings in North America collectively contain more wildlands than all of the national parks and nature conservancy areas in North America. Globally, indigenous peoples inhabit areas with some of the highest remaining biodiversity on the planet and are actively engaged as partners in biodiversity conservation…Traditional ecological knowledge has value not only for the wealth of biological information it contains but for the cultural framework of respect, reciprocity, and responsibility in which it is embedded…[and] has been recognized as complementary and equivalent to scientific knowledge. (Kemmerer 2002, pp. 432)

By recognizing and embodying this wealth of knowledge and cultural framework in public land use planning efforts, we bolster our chances at maintaining thriving communities with high ecological integrity, not just now, but for our kids and their kids. For the future.

Photo by Lauren Marsh

We wrote previously of Resource Management Plans as the foundations for conservation of Federal public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). These plans are also a means to implement Tribal co-stewardship within these landscapes. If RMPs are the foundation or blueprint, then

the proposed Public Lands Rule is the weight needed to incorporate more protection and restoration into land use plans. Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs) follow suit as the main mechanism for doing so through the land use planning process. Let’s dive in:

As it stands, 91% of Wyoming BLM lands are open for mineral leasing. Until the early 2000s, the lek site we visited was one of them. Thanks to a strong showing from lovers of the Red Desert and receptiveness on the part of the BLM, the decision to withdraw the area from extraction was made in an amendment to the Rock Springs RMP known as the Jack Morrow Hills Coordinated Activity Plan. That decision is now up for discussion again as the BLM proposes the next iteration of its Resource Management Plan for the Rock Springs Field Office. Wildlands, such as ACECs and Wilderness Study Areas, are an important part of maintaining ecological integrity within the greater context of how we live in and with our Western lands. Enter you, engaged citizen, and the proposed Public Lands Rule. The new proposed BLM Rule on Conservation and Landscape Health, aka ‘Public Lands Rule,’ highlights ACECs as the means for protecting intact, healthy landscapes on BLM managed lands as well as for achieving meaningful Tribal co-stewardship. ACECs in turn, are designated during the land use planning process such as the ongoing Rock Springs Field Office RMP Revision. The BLM, Biden Administration, and Wyoming Legislators need to hear from all of us that we support the Rule, which would lead to greater ecological protections and greater Tribal engagement, including during processes such as the Rocks Springs RMP revision.

“The BLM, Biden Administration, and Wyoming Legislators need to hear from all of us that we support the Rule.”

Important Clarifications:

The proposed rule does not prevent mineral leasing, grazing or recreation. But rather, it puts emphasis on making sure that management of these lands preserves ITEK, ecological integrity, and habitat connectivity. In fact, it recognizes the successes achieved through landscape health standards applied to grazing allotments and proposes to extend these standards to all BLM lands. BLM leadership is recognizing that within the greater context of a changing climate and increasing populations there are increasing demands on our public lands. In order to truly make sustainable use sustainable, there is a greater need to set aside areas prioritized for protection and restoration to make sure all lands, even those without area designations, support functioning ecosystems. In other words, let’s keep the lands we love and our relationships with them healthy and thriving; let’s make sustainable use sustainable.

Photo by Greg Mionske
“...let’s keep the lands we love and our relationships with them healthy and thriving. Let’s make sustainable use sustainable.”

What You Can Do:

  • Attend the virtual meeting on June 5th, 2023 to learn more about the proposed Public Lands Rule. Sign up HERE.

  • Submit your comments now through June 25th on the proposed Public Lands Rule. Comment HERE.

  • Join us in the desert to connect & learn more about this significant landscape.

  • Learn more about Responsible Recreation & Sustainable Tourism. Let’s show our wildlands the humility and respect they deserve.

Thanks for all you do to keep our public lands wild and thriving!


Kemmerer, Robin Wall. Weaving Traditional Ecological Knowledge into Biological Education: A Call to Action. BioScience, Volume 52, Issue 5, May 2002, Pages 432–438

Cover photo by Lauren Marsh

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