Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Tracking the Wild Greater Sage Grouse

By David Weskamp conservation manager for Eastern Idaho

The greater sage grouse is an iconic symbol of the west. It inhabits sagebrush steppe habitat in eleven states from Colorado to California. While the population of sage grouse once reached the millions, it is estimated to only reach around 200,000-300,000 today. Several factors have contributed to this dramatic decrease including wildfire, habitat fragmentation, and climate change. 

Sage grouse have been listed as a candidate species for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is required to make the decision to either list sage grouse under protection of the ESA in 2015 or to remove them from the candidate list. 

Male sage grouse © Bob Griffith
There is a strong collaborative effort to improve sagebrush steppe habitat and increase the population. The Nature Conservancy, along with state and federal agencies, NGO’s and private landowners are working together to improve sage grouse habitat on multiple levels. One example is the effort of private landowners working with the USFWS on a program called Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances. This program is a proactive approach for landowners to take initial steps to improve sagebrush steppe habitat and sage grouse protection, such as employing best management grazing practices. 

One of my first protection efforts as the Eastern Idaho Conservation manager is to help improve sagebrush steppe habitat and monitor sage grouse populations. Recently, I joined Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) and the Bureau of Land management (BLM) in their efforts to monitor and trap female sage grouse and install 30 radio-collared GPS tracking units and 15 VHF tracking units. 

Radio collar © David Weskamp
The morning of our trapping adventure, I met IDFG and BLM at 4:30 a.m. out in the Sands Creek Desert and then ventured down a gravel road to a sage grouse breeding site or lek.  Sage grouse traditionally return to the same lek year after year, much like salmon returning to their natal streams to spawn. Once we arrived, we discussed our plan by the light of our headlamps, trying to dodge each others' high beams. 

We split up and shared a small blind (camouflaged tent) that was strategically placed around the lek and the large drop net that would be used to trap sage grouse. The drop net was controlled by a remote trigger that was activated once female sage grouse walked under the net. The goal was to trap as many females as possible; although, getting several females to walk under the net is a challenge and you only get one chance.  

Installing the drop net © David Weskamp/TNC
I joined my crew member in the blind and waited patiently in the dark. Like clockwork, around 6 a.m.  I could hear the birds dive bombing our blinds and the males chanting their unique mating calls. When the sun rose, I was amazed how many male sage grouse were strutting and puffing their chests, showing off for the females. We counted 60 males and approximately 15 females. 

While we waited, my crew member was texting back forth with the other members to inform them if any females were getting close to the net. During the morning several males entered into the net zone, but females were staying clear. Finally at 8 a.m. one lone female walked under the net, and in a split second the net was deployed, the blinds were thrown off and crew members rushed to the net. 

We had trapped two male sage grouse and one female.  I worked with one IDFG member to free the males while other members captured the female and prepared to install the radio collar. This particular radio collar is placed on the rump of the bird and will help track the nesting sites and migration patterns. Once the radio collar was installed, she was set free and the crew talked about the morning and how to capture and collar the remaining 35 females.

Releasing the female © David Weskamp/TNC
I joined IDFG on one more monitoring project, driving through the desert and counting sage grouse on four different leks.  IDFG monitor several lek routes annually and works closely with others agencies and community members to count birds and track migration patterns of recently radio collared females. 

This iconic bird of the west has a special place in everyone’s heart and is great to see how much effort there is to protect, understand, and enjoy the greater sage grouse.
Editor’s note: Effective conservation requires more understanding of the movement and habitat needs of these iconic birds. The tracking devices will help researchers identify conservation strategies to help protect sage grouse and their habitat. 

For more information about TNC's involvement in tracking birds in Idaho, click here.