Sage grouse survey

A sage grouse looks for food and cover in a well-picked shrub east of Blacktail Butte this February. Based on spring lek counts, Jackson Hole grouse numbers are the lowest ever recorded, but local biologists will have to wait at least another year to import birds to augment the population.

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.”

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or env@jhnewsandguide.com.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them since 2012. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

(3) comments

Konrad Lau

Maybe if removal of the excess wolf and coyote populations were legal, there would be more grouse?

Grouse are ground-layers and are most vulnerable when laying eggs and just after birth.

Noah Osnos

Any evidence that there is excess wolf population? Do you know if wolves have been predating the eggs/young? Are you proposing that extirpation of one species will guarantee the survival of another?

Konrad Lau

The grouse population is severely controlled by ground dwelling predators (like wolves) and weather (harsh winter). By all accounts, ungulate population counts have decreased proportionally to the increase in wolf infestation in every state where accurate numbers are honestly reported.

The state of Idaho saw dramatic decreases in license revenues within five years of the wolves meeting their “Target” numbers in the wild. The North American Elk had vanished from the mountains and forests. As a consequence, licensed wolf hunting and trapping has increased in an attempt to better balance wolves against other species. Meanwhile, activists not only ignore the burgeoning wolf population in direct violation of the promises made during setting those very targets, but are attempting to postpone State controlled management of those wolf populations saying, “We need to ban all wolf hunting and removal projects.”

I presume you have enough common sense to understand there is no need to determine survival rates of grouse by forensically interpreting eggshell fragments. Counts of winter survivors is usually the way these numbers are compiled.

Indeed, “survival of the species” IS based upon one species surviving at the detriment to others. However, I suspect if one got the truth from the Eco Folks, predation is the primary cause for the reduction in grouse population.

Question: What ground dwelling predator has most recently been reintroduced into the American ecosystem (and to great acclaim)?

Hint: It ain’t the Speckled Beak Northern Blue-Back.

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