Come next spring a panel of local experts tasked with counseling state managers about Jackson Hole’s sage grouse intends to have everything in order in case a reeling population needs an emergency infusion of birds.
The regional population overall has been in a yearslong spiral toward the brink, but it’s a much smaller subpopulation of the chicken-sized sagebrush-dwelling critters that ekes it out in the Gros Ventre River drainage that’s of the highest priority.
“You could look at the Gros Ventre at being our trial, in the short-term,” retired biologist Joe Bohne, who chairs the Upper Snake River Basin Sage Grouse Working Group, told the News&Guide in an interview Tuesday.
Up the Gros Ventre this spring, biologists counted no more than seven male sage grouse displaying for an untold number of females on “lek” sites used attracting mates. Just around 40 more male grouse — tied for a record low — were detected at eight leks in the heart of Jackson Hole, mostly in the sagebrush flats within Grand Teton National Park. The historical average number of sage grouse counted in Jackson Hole’s “core area” habitat, where almost all the birds live, is 167 males.
Exacerbating the concern for the Gros Ventre population is its isolation — there’s little evidence they mix with the Grand Teton birds, or with a much larger population to the east in the Green River basin.
Meeting last week, the Upper Snake working group unanimously supported being prepared to act nimbly in case the lek counts continued to fall next spring. There was even discussion of cobbling together tens of thousands of dollars this fall and winter, a pot of money that would pay for six solar-powered GPS backpacks that could be fitted onto translocated female sage grouse, and also cover the cost of data processing fees for a few years to come.
A potential source population for the transplants was also on the table for discussion, and biologists were siding toward trapping the birds in the Green River basin, which houses the most significant numbers of sage grouse remaining on planet Earth.
Jackson Hole’s population is not that. It’s always been relatively isolated and small population, but now it is as small as any time in modern history, on the heels of a Blacktail Butte wildfire that knocked out a bunch of winter habitat and two straight rough snow years.
“What’s concerning is the way this thing goes off the deep end,” Bohne told his fellow working group members. “It looks like a population crash.
“I’m not trying to paint this as the sky is falling,” he said.
National Elk Refuge Biologist Eric Cole reminded him that, “It might be.”
Cole pointed out that sage grouse visible during winter in the refuge’s North Gap area were down to six this year. Typically, he said, there are 50 to 100.
“It’s not part of their criteria,” Cole said, “but I still think it’s important.”
The criteria Cole referred are detailed in Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon’s executive order prescribing protecting for sage grouse, a document that incidentally was updated the same day the local working group met.
A “soft trigger” identified in the order has already been met, based on a 71% drop in male grouse numbers over the last five years. The group haggled over whether the “hard trigger” had also been tripped, and were trying to understand the just-released criteria. Hard triggers indicate management is failing to conserve birds, and that there’s a “catastrophic indicator” that a population is not responding to conservation actions.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department assists in the process by running an analysis to determine if a population is in need of life support, which may be the case in the Gros Ventre.
“Nowhere else in the state would I run a hard-trigger analysis on just one lek,” Wyoming sage grouse biologist Leslie Schreiber told the working group. “I’m trying to understand that, so help me with that.”
For now the Upper Snake working group members are hammering out language for a recommendation that will be sent on to the statewide Sage Grouse Implementation Team.
There’s a good likelihood that, in the event of continued decline, a translocation will be a part of that proposal — especially up the Gros Ventre.
“Can we move these birds and get them to stick?” Bohne said. “The stuff we’ve been doing in North Dakota says yes, you can. If you get the chicks when they’re young enough, they can’t fly and leave.”