It’s early in the morning, hours before sunrise. An old pickup truck turns down a dirt road at Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area in Eastern Washington, about 90 minutes west of Spokane.
“Boy, it’s pretty foggy out,” says Juli Anderson as she peers out at the sagebrush ahead, silvery leaves glinting in headlight beams.
Anderson manages the wildlife area. She’s squished into the middle seat of the truck. In the back seat are five cardboard boxes.
Each holds a sage grouse. The turkey-sized birds were captured in southeastern Oregon. They’ve been fitted with monitoring devices and are ready to be released at the wildlife area to help boost this sage grouse population.
Once Gone, Now Returned
This area was historically home to the greater sage grouse. Old timers sometimes call the birds fool hens for their quirky behavior during mating season.
“You can kind of see why,” Anderson says. “They get captured with spotlights and big nets. They’ll sit out on a big road in the springtime just kind of looking at you. What we think of as defensive behavior – these males don’t exhibit it at this time of year. They have one focus, and that’s pretty much it.”
The last big sage grouse mating ground here – known as a lek – was about 10 miles from a dirt road.
“They had been pretty much shot out in the '80s. There had been occasional sightings of sage grouse up until the early '90s, and then they petered out,” Anderson says.
A Declining Population
Greater sage grouse numbers are declining across the Western United States. There just isn’t as much habitat as there once was, and the remaining habitat is fragmented. That’s a problem for birds that need wide-open spaces.
The birds’ numbers have dropped dramatically across 11 Western states. In 2010, the Sage Grouse Initiative formed to help protect grouse and their habitat across the region.
With such a large range, every state has different problems with habitat.
“In Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, you have a lot of encroaching conifer trees, where we’ve kept fire out for 100 years. Those trees march out on the arid, desert environment and fragment the landscape that way," said Tim Griffiths, the initiative’s national coordinator. "Or somewhere like up in Washington, where we’ve had wholesale conversion of historic native range for wholesale crop production.”
Griffiths said sage grouse habitat has been cut in half. Some of the leftover habitat is not ideal, which has caused sage grouse numbers to drop by about 90 percent.
Griffiths is coordinating various agencies, ranchers and landowners to work together and protect historic habitat.
In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided that greater sage grouse were in enough trouble they should be included on the Endangered Species List. But other species were in deeper trouble, so the greater sage grouse got wait-listed. The service will reexamine that decision next year.
Griffiths said that’s when stakeholders will have to prove that their efforts to protect the greater sage grouse have paid off — the million dollar question no one can answer yet.
Regarding whether the many efforts to protect greater sage grouse have worked, Griffiths said, “Everybody’s foot is on the accelerator. They’re digging deeper. They’re doing more. We just don’t known."
He said if it does work, the interagency collaboration could be a model moving forward to recover other endangered species.
At The Mating Ground
Biologists in the Northwest are working to boost numbers locally — like the experimental relocation project at Swanson Lakes.
At the end of the dirt road, the truck stops near the mating ground.
“So, we have arrived in this open field. Our settling boxes are off to the left. Just back in the sage brush a little bit,” Anderson says.
Watch: Sage grouse strut at a mating ground
Anderson, with her colleague Mike Finch, will introduce the five sage grouse to their new home in a so-called “soft release.” That means they put the birds in small, black wooden boxes — known as Musil boxes after their inventor. The soft release helps the birds calm down before they enter the lek.
The wind picks up as Anderson and Finch take the cardboard boxes holding the birds from the back seat of the pickup. They walk through sagebrush brambles to the soft release boxes.
“Do we want to start with the hens here?” Anderson suggests.
Today, Anderson and Finch are releasing four females and one male sage grouse.
They open the cardboard boxes one at a time and check to make sure the birds are OK.
“OK, she looks good,” Anderson says as she looks over one hen.
They then put the birds in the soft release boxes, one for the females and one for the male. The birds flutter quickly into the black box.
Success At Swanson Lakes
Each Western state has come up with its own greater sage grouse restoration plan. Griffiths hopes the many efforts — like the one at Swanson Lakes — are enough to keep the bird off the endangered species list in 2015.
“This is really the largest endangered species act experiment ever conducted. Nobody knows the ultimate outcome, but all indicators are we’re moving the needle significantly for sage grouse,” Griffiths says of the many plans in place for the birds.
And Anderson says that’s the case at Swanson Lakes.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has been relocating birds here since 2008. Anderson says there are now about 60 birds at this lek that was once wiped out. Some birds have flown the coop, and Anderson thinks a few others may be starting a new lek deeper in Swanson Lakes.
Throughout the morning, Mike Finch has been keeping track of the radio-collared birds near the lek. This year, the males are outfitted with GPS trackers, which will better pin-point the birds’ movements.
Releasing The Birds
At the edge of the Eastern Washington lek, Anderson and Finch take cover behind 5-foot-tall sagebrush.
They’re each holding a fishing line that’s attached to doors on the Musil boxes. They plan to pull the line to open the soft release box doors once the birds have calmed down.
But before they can release the grouse, the door falls off its hinge. Three of the females fly out. Their wings flap in the dark as they fly overhead.
“They didn’t flush wild. A couple hens flushed off to one side — but toward the lek area. They’re OK,” Anderson says. That’s one reason the Musil boxes are so close to the lek — if something happens, the birds are already here.
They release the rest of the birds and head back toward the pickup truck.
Twenty years ago, Anderson didn’t think she’d see sage grouse forming a lek here.
“To see them back here, it just seems like the way it ought to be. They belong on the landscape,” she says.
They hope to capture and release 20 males and 20 females at the lek this spring.
After that, everyone will wait to see if the greater sage grouse will make the endangered species list next year.
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