POWELL — Leslie Schreiber slowed as the horizontal snow concealed a rare paved road north of Rawlins. But the wildlife biologist refused to stop.
This could have been any of 1,000 days in the life of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist, but it was far from an average day. This was Schreiber’s first in the field as the state’s new sage grouse program coordinator. And on this day, the mission was to help the species fight for survival two states away.
The situation in North Dakota is dire. At last count, there were less than 10 male sage grouse counted on leks in the entire state. There’s speculation that, should the species disappear there, they might also vanish from the South Dakota landscape.
North and South Dakota are two of only 11 western states with suitable habitat for the sage grouse, which are in decline. Several conditions led to a crash in population over the past decade, but most recently, scientists suspect West Nile Virus devastated already struggling populations.
Should they disappear in the Dakotas, it’s likely to be interpreted as yet another reason to give sage grouse protections under the Endangered Species Act. And if the bird is listed, experts say that Wyoming — which has both the most habitat and the largest population of sage grouse in the world — has the most to lose.
To help each other, Wyoming and North Dakota have entered into a trade: Wyoming is sending as many as 100 male and 100 female sage grouse (including 50 females with their broods) over multiple years, while North Dakota is providing up to 200 wild pheasants; the pheasants will add some genetic diversity to the breeding stock at the Wyoming game bird farm in Sheridan.
Yet, according to David Dahlgren at Utah State University, the swap’s greatest benefit to Wyoming isn’t the new pheasants: It’s the techniques that wildlife managers are learning about the best ways to move sage grouse from one place to another.
“As sage grouse habitat continues to retract and populations continue to be fragmented, translocations are going to become, in my estimation, much more common — whether to bolster populations in numbers or genetically,” said Dahlgren, a rangeland wildlife extension specialist and the country’s leading expert on sage grouse translocations.
Translocation is an important new tool in efforts to increase the genetic viability of not only sage grouse, but many species. As habitat becomes fragmented by development, wildlife are becoming isolated in “islands” and genetically stagnant. Scientists hope this sage grouse translocation experiment — led by Dahlgren and wildlife officials in Wyoming and North Dakota officials, The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and the U.S. Geological Survey — will result in lessons applicable to other species as techniques are refined; Dahlgren is also working on grouse translocation projects in Utah, Nevada and California.
The work sounds simple enough — catch the birds and move them to a new location — but the efforts have been a five-year labor of love involving dozens of scientists, doctors and highly trained workers who are willing to work long hours – often in miserable conditions.
At 9 p.m. on April 2, Schreiber began preparing for work at the Hampton Inn in Rawlins — her temporary home away from home for the duration of the captures.
The Game and Fish Department chose to capture grouse in the Rawlins area, core sage grouse habitat, because the populations are healthy there. But the weather wasn’t cooperating.
With high winds blowing rain, sleet and snow into the sagebrush steppe, preparations were critical. You have to be warm and dry to concentrate on the work at hand and that requires a lot of layers. Bill Jensen, a large animal wildlife biologist from North Dakota was the first ready and waiting in the lobby of the hotel.
“There’s no bad weather, just bad clothing,” he said.
One of the last items Schreiber put on was a headlamp. To safely catch sage grouse, you have to work in the dark of night. On this snowy night, catching them was going to require a miracle; Dahlgren had already warned the team that if captured birds came back wet and cold, he would postpone the efforts.
“I’m not going to risk a single bird,” he said.
Just getting to the nesting grounds outside Rawlins was a struggle. Deep snow drifts slowed all-terrain vehicles. Before the teams reached the birds, they were already wet and cold. They traveled in teams of two — one with a spotlight and one with a specially designed net. The spotlight illuminated the males, given away by their glowing green eyes and broad, white neck plumage. While the birds were blinded by the light, the team member with the net snuck up from behind, gently caught the grouse and secured them in a cardboard box. The material was a bad mix with the wet night. In the first three hours of effort, the teams managed to catch three grouse.
The birds were handed off to waiting teams and shuttled back to base camp. Wildlife veterinarians anesthetized the grouse as they arrived (to reduce stress during handling), then carefully inspected, banded and tested them; only two of the first three birds brought in were healthy enough to be approved by Game and Fish Wildlife Veterinarian Mary Wood as candidates for translocation. Those two were fitted with radio transmitters for future studies. Meanwhile, Dahlgren halted the capture effort due to the worsening weather.
Teams waited in their trucks for the conditions to change, some grabbing naps. At about 3:30 a.m., there was a break in the precipitation and teams once again mounted up.
By 7:30 a.m., the teams had caught and processed nine grouse and headed back to Rawlins for a nap. A crew from North Dakota was standing by with a truck. They shuttled the first load of grouse to the northeast, releasing them the next morning in western North Dakota, near the Montana border.
The following day in Rawlins, the routine was the same, but the weather improved. The scientists captured and processed 11 more roosters, then another crew drove the males to North Dakota for release.
The teams will reassemble later this spring — after nests hatch — to capture 10 females without active broods and 10 with their chicks. Keeping the broods together with their mothers is an important part of the experiment, Dahlgren has found.
“It has really helped us get past the big risks we have taken with translocations,” he said.
But it’s all an experiment at this stage, Schreiber said, and determining success is a long process. Teams of scientists will be staying at both capture and release locations through the summer. They’ll check to make sure the populations in Wyoming aren’t being adversely affected by the captures — and that augmentation is working in the birds’ new homes in North Dakota.
While researchers hope it will be a five-year project, Wyoming is approving the work on a year-by-year basis.
“We want to have a better feel of the impacts to Wyoming birds before we agree to the whole five years,” Schreiber said. The project is now in year three and preliminary USGS data shows little to no adverse effects on Wyoming’s source population and small successes in North Dakota, Dahlgren said.
“Things look good right now,” he said. “But my translocation experience with grouse is you don’t really start to see a good response until the fourth year of efforts. That’s when things really start to take off.”
Each new attempt gives crews from the 11 western states with sage grouse habitat clues on how to better translocate grouse and augment or diversify populations.
“What we learn about translocating sage grouse will be shared with those other states,” Schreiber said. “It’s an important tool we’re developing.”
State and federal officials share the task of visiting known leks and reporting sage grouse numbers in Wyoming — and help comes from many sources. Powell Game Warden Chris Queen covers five to six leks, counting the males and females participating in intricate spring mating rituals.
“The data is important, but I have to combine the route with other duties,” Queen said while bouncing his green department F-250 down a soggy road. “Our jobs are a third law enforcement, a third wildlife management and a third whatever is asked of us.”
As he rolled up to one of his stops in Elk Basin, north of Powell, Queen hopped out with his spotting scope. He hot-footed it through the sand and sagebrush to a high point on a hill, a half-mile from the truck. There, through the powerful scope, the warden could watch the lek without disrupting the grouse’s dance.
“There are 22 roosters and four hens,” Queen said while perched near a lichen-covered outcropping, adding, “I hope there are more later in this season — closer to the peak.”
Sage grouse production in Wyoming has been on a downward trend for the past few years, dropping from a 10-year high of 1.8 chicks per hen in 2014 to 0.83 last year. The average needed to maintain the current population is 1.2 chicks per hen, Schreiber said, and a growing population has 1.5 chicks per hen. Sage grouse are known to be cyclical, having bad years and good years depending on factors like weather and habitat quality.
Grouse populations have sunk from an estimated 16 million birds to about 400,000 across the West. As part of the effort to reverse declining populations, research teams even spent two years experimenting with artificial insemination — an extremely difficult task.
The hope is that helping the species rebound will stave off the birds’ listing as an endangered species — as well as saving the important species. A listing could slow mineral exploration and extraction, land leases and agriculture while costing western states revenue.
More immediately, if the North Dakota sage grouse range should contract by 30 miles, it could result in losing populations in both Dakotas, said Jesse Kolar, upland game management supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
“State boundary seems like an arbitrary line, but each state has funds to spend,” Kolar said. “If two states lose those funds, it has practical consequences for sage grouse.”
The Dakotas may be the edge of the range, but having sage grouse survive there benefits all states with the species, Dahlgren said.
“If we keep seeing extirpations, there’s a higher likelihood of a federal listing and all the economic ramifications of that to western states,” he said. “And Wyoming stands to lose the most.”
As the need for translocations continues or possibly increases, scientists will most likely continue to look to Wyoming for wild birds, as almost 40 percent of the country’s greater sage grouse live here.
“Wyoming,” Dahlgren said, “is sage grouse core.”