Wyoming wildlife officials have not yet made any decisions about a precautionary importation of sage grouse to the Gros Ventre River drainage that local biologists say is necessary to keep birds on the landscape.
A working group of local scientists and sportsmen that oversees sage grouse conservation in the Upper Snake River basin received a progress report from the state Monday in a virtual meeting. Group members learned from Game and Fish sage grouse program manager Leslie Schreiber that, tentatively, it’s looking like some conditions up the Gros Ventre might not meet state guidelines that define what’s considered suitable habitat for sage grouse.
“In my mind it may come back as suitable, but it’s not all hunky-dory,” Schreiber told the group.
Based on vegetation surveys last winter, she explained, the sage grouse canopy is too tight.
“It is counterintuitive that you can have too much sagebrush,” Schreiber said, “but when you have sagebrush that’s so dense over a large area it’s actually detrimental to the grouse.”
Some biologists appointed to the local working group were dubious.
Game and Fish retiree Joe Bohne pointed out that the state’s criteria was geared around a species called Wyoming big sagebrush, but the dominant species growing locally is mountain sagebrush — and the chicken-size grouse use the two species differently.
“I’m sure there are other places in the world where sage grouse exist on winter habitat that doesn’t meet that criteria,” Bohne said. “I’m positive of that.”
Uncertainty about the habitat suitability in the valley east of Jackson was just one of five reasons Wyoming Sage Grouse Implementation Team chairman Bob Budd pressed pause on a technical team’s recommendation to bring sage grouse in this spring. The Sage Grouse Implementation Team’s adaptive management working group unanimously agreed to that decision, slowing the translocation project.
The disconnected population of birds in the Gros Ventre, which dwell in an area considered “core” sage grouse habitat by Wyoming, is the lowest it’s been since recordkeeping started. Just two males were counted strutting on sage grouse breeding areas, called leks, this spring, though 18 birds in the area were spotted earlier in the year.
Budd and the statewide working group also rationalized denying a 2020 translocation by saying more investigation of the history of the Gros Ventre grouse population was needed. They also wanted to more closely examine a source location for relocated grouse, the protocols for moving the birds and the possibility of killing off predators in conjunction with the effort.
Game and Fish’s regional wildlife coordinator, Doug McWhirter, took the lead on probing the history. He found “not much” information on Gros Ventre sage grouse, even while paging through documents as old as expedition journals from parties that passed through the valley in the 1830s. The earliest mention he encountered of Gros Ventre grouse was their remains in coyote scat, confirmed by Olaus Murie in the 1930s. But it wasn’t until 1986 that McWhirter found evidence of a formal survey. That year a Game and Fish biologist counted 27 males.
McWhirter also did some legwork looking into predator control possibilities. Hiring a contracted gunner to shoot coyotes from a helicopter, which would be a tough sell in Teton County, would cost about $3,000 to $4,000. A month of ground-based work targeting foxes, badgers, skunks and raccoons would cost $10,000 or more, he found.
Schreiber was not sure if the state’s under-development sage grouse translocation plans would require killing predators. It’s something that should be explored, she said.
But U.S. Geological Survey ecologist and working group member Geneva Chong was leery of going down that road.
“I am not going to support blanket predator control,” she said. “That would require significant investment in ensuring that we were doing something defensible from an ecological standpoint.”
Game and Fish selected a population of sage grouse on the east slope of the Wyoming Range, in the Calpet area, for the source population where the birds would come from, Schreiber said. Taking grouse from closer than that, say from the Daniel area, wasn’t considered feasible because the removal of grouse could trip “triggers” that would might lead to conservation actions being taken, she said.
Before adjourning, the Upper Snake Sage Grouse Working Group decided to hold off on designating any of its $23,000 in funding for project proposals that were submitted, pending Game and Fish’s determination about a Gros Ventre translocation.
“I’m also hesitant to invest any money in habitat improvements in the Gros Ventre, given the fact that our lek count was two males,” Teton Raptor Center biologist and working group member Bryan Bedrosian said. “If translocations can’t happen there and there aren’t going to be any grouse in the Gros Ventre anyway, I’d rather have our money go to habitat improvements where we still have some birds left.”