State plans project to protect sage grouse

North Dakota’s Game and Fish Department has attempted to prevent the disappearance of the native sage grouse species in southwest North Dakota for years, with little success.

Katie Brunson (L) and Matt Bahm (R) of the North Dakota Department of Game and Fish attach a radio-collar to a female sage grouse to track its movements. Efforts to trap grouse are done after dark. (Courtesy Photo)

By BRYCE MARTIN | Regional Editor
bmartin@countrymedia.net

North Dakota’s Game and Fish Department has attempted to prevent the disappearance of the native sage grouse species in southwest North Dakota for years, with little success. But a unique strategy beginning this week could offer the birds a new fighting chance for survival and, ultimately, repopulation.

While the department remains optimistic, the plan is without guarantee, “but it could be the last chance we have,” according to Aaron Robinson.

Robinson, upland game management supervisor at the department’s branch in Dickinson, will lead a team to an area in south-central Wyoming on Friday to capture 40 female sage grouse, called hens, and 20 males. The birds will be flown back to Bowman next week with the hope that they adapt to their new habitat.

The hens will be artificially inseminated to further ensure the transplantation project’s success.

This marks another chapter in the controversial struggle to protect the sage grouse.

•How the sage grouse population has been declining

Bowman and Slope counties boast the distinction of being the only two areas in North Dakota where sage grouse — only able to survive in areas where there is sagebrush — are found. In recent years the population has decreased from over a couple thousand to now less than 50.

“Oil and gas has fragmented some of the habitat,” explained Robinson. “The main thing was an outbreak of West Nile virus (that) … wiped out most of the population.”

Though Robinson said there many things contributed to the drastic drop in population, some reasons could essentially be considered manmade.

After a West Nile virus outbreak extirpated most of the sage grouse population in 2007, hunting of the birds was ended in North Dakota. Then efforts for the birds to rebound were fragmented by increased oil and natural gas activity in and around their habitat in southwest Bowman and Slope.

Many consider sage grouse to be a symbol of southwestern North Dakota. Robinson said the birds were present in the area well before humans, and notably around when famed explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark blazed their historic trail through the Dakotas in the early 1800s. It is an iconic species to the west — particularly representing great significance to Native American culture.

“The dance that (sage grouse) do in the spring is replicated in a lot of the dances in Native American history,” Robinson said.

The birds can also be found in 11 other western states, with Wyoming having the largest population. North Dakota has the smallest population of sage grouse in the nation, and it continues to shrink.

“We want to see if we can get our population back above a level that they can sustain themselves,” he said.

A similar relocation program was completed with prairie chickens on the east side of the state in the early 2000s. Despite some abnormally harsh winters in the ensuing years, the population has rebounded and, according to Robinson, “they’re doing OK.”

•Endangered: A much larger issue

In the last few years there was a move by environmental groups to list the sage grouse as an endangered species, though it ultimately failed. It would have ironically defeated efforts to save the grouse, according to Robinson.

Efforts over the years have been rooted in strong communication and cooperation between multiple entities and the state’s Game and Fish Department, with local landowners, the National Resources Conservation Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the Little Missouri Grazing Association.

An alliance was formed with a singular goal: to protect the sage grouse and encourage repopulation.

“Unprecedented cooperation by private landowners, states and the federal government has created a framework for conservation at a scale unique in the word,” stated National Audubon Society President and CEO David Yarnold, whose organization’s mission is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems through grassroots efforts.

The transplantation project comes on the heels of the ruling to deny listing sage grouse on the endangered species list, and Robinson said if the birds do ultimately disappear from North Dakota, those people wanting sage grouse listed as endangered would protest that the ruling was not right.

If sage grouse are added to the nation’s Endangered Species Act, some could argue it would provide further protection, though at a cost to western North Dakota and a great span of grouse habitat across the nation, he said. It could prevent energy exploration in those areas, a potential resulting loss of millions of dollars to the oil and natural gas industry.

“We don’t know if that protection would do anything,” Robinson explained. “You have a bunch of landowners, private and federal entities trying to keep them from being listed. If they become listed, a lot of those efforts would stop.

“Everything would be put in federal jurisdiction. A lot of the good things that are happening, voluntarily, on behalf of the producers and landowners, would just stop.”

Robinson suggested sage grouse would have a better chance remaining stable if not listed as endangered as it would promote greater flexibility for ways to better protect the birds.

•How the new project will work

A team from the state’s Game and Fish Department, along with Robinson, will head out to the site in Wyoming on Friday. The birds will be trapped and caught with nets at night, then tested for any sort of disease and fitted with transmitters to monitor their movement.

The grouse will be loaded onto a plane and land at Bowman County Regional Airport sometime in the next week. They will then be released in areas around southwest Bowman and Slope counties.

While the birds are non-migratory, they have a “high fidelity” to their breeding location. To offset that factor, teams will artificially inseminate the females with the hope that their broods permanently make this region their home.

“When you put them in a new area, their movements are a lot bigger than what they typically are in a normal population,” Robinson said. “If we can get the hens to establish a nest in the area, then that becomes their new anchor point.”

Robinson said the goal of the department is also to remain transparent so local landowners — 80 percent of the local sage grouse population exists on private land — were aware of the project. Those landowners have been helpful, according to Robinson, in wanting to help and protect the birds.

But “this is the last effort at trying to keep this population from going belly up,” he said. Sage grouse are a piece of history “that we don’t want to lose from our landscape.

“They represent something bigger than us; something that we all strive for — the foundation of the history of this state and the west.”

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