A team of scientists tasked with overseeing Jackson Hole’s struggling sage grouse has been denied a request to import birds from outside the valley this summer as a precaution to avert a total population collapse.
For much of the last year, the multiagency volunteer Jackson Sage Grouse Technical Team had been making plans for an emergency import of the chicken-size birds, which have dwindled to fewer than 50 known males in the valley.
But putting that plan into action — which team members widely agreed was urgent — hit a stumbling block earlier this month when it didn’t pass muster with the statewide Wyoming Greater Sage Grouse Adaptive Management Working Group.
“The [working group] did not feel it was prudent to accelerate relocation of birds from another core area in 2020,” Bob Budd, who chairs the umbrella group, the Wyoming Sage Grouse Implementation Team, wrote to the technical team in a June 16 letter. “It is unclear if the habitat in the relocation area is adequate to support new birds.”
Budd said he found the local team’s report to be “thorough, thoughtful and well-intentioned” and agreed with other recommendations before conveying reasons why the statewide group wouldn’t OK a 2020 translocation. He cited uncertainty about impacts on the proposed source population, which was to be from the Green River Basin.
On Thursday morning, the Wyoming Sage Grouse Implementation Team discussed the situation via Zoom. Jackson technical team member and Teton Conservation District wildlife specialist Morgan Graham said that it was “demoralizing” to learn that the translocation wasn’t going to happen this year.
“It’s tough to see these bird numbers continue to go down,” Graham told the statewide sage grouse team. “I think the first place I ever saw a sage grouse was the Moulton Lek in probably 2008, and I’ve seen 140 birds on that lek. Seeing it max out at, like, 20 the past couple years is pretty tough, and some of the smaller ones are way worse than that.”
Teton Raptor Center Research Director Bryan Bedrosian, who has researched the valley’s sage grouse for 13 years, told the statewide team during the same meeting that during lek surveys this spring the count in the Gros Ventre River drainage was down to two male birds. That population, which doesn’t mix with Jackson Hole-proper birds, was likely going to be the landing pad for the translocated birds.
The longer-term vision is to build up Gros Ventre and Jackson Hole populations so that there’s connectivity and mixing of genes between local sage grouse and those in the Green River Basin.
In his letter, Budd asked for more information about the history of the disconnected sage grouse population up the Gros Ventre. The letter suggested that the population could have been a remnant from a translocation event 60 years ago, but in the meeting Bedrosian said that is “not really the case.”
Retired Game and Fish biologist Joe Bohne, who chairs the Upper Snake sage grouse working group, said he’s still scratching his head over what needs to be done to make the translocation happen.
“They do not appear to be in as quite a big of rush as we are,” he said.
In the meantime, Bohne is worried about the disconnected, at-risk populations of Jackson Hole and Gros Ventre sage grouse, which are both hanging on with fewer birds than at any other time since record keeping started.
“The Gros Ventre population, they’re tanking,” Bohne said. “And the Jackson Hole population, there was essentially no change. Last year was the lowest population in history, and there’s essentially no change, so it’s really in bad shape.”