The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is taking control of plans to shore up Jackson Hole’s struggling sage grouse population, an idea born of a team of technical experts recently rebuffed for trying to translocate birds this summer.
The local and out-of-state biologists and volunteers who make up the Jackson Sage Grouse Technical Team were disappointed to learn that their recommendation — deemed necessary to avert a collapse — had been put off until 2021 at the earliest.
On Thursday morning the situation was discussed by the Wyoming Sage Grouse Implementation Team, which met via Zoom. Jackson technical team member and Teton Conservation District wildlife specialist Morgan Graham said it was “demoralizing” for the team members to learn that months of work wouldn’t lead to a translocation 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.”
In the aftermath of the meeting some Jackson technical team members were confused about how the decision was made and what was going to happen with the project.
The decision to press pause on the translocation plans was made unanimously in a closed virtual meeting by the Sage Grouse Implementation Team’s adaptive management working group, Game and Fish Deputy Director Angi Bruce told the News&Guide.
“That group had a lot of good discussions, but there was consensus,” Bruce said. “Everyone reviewed and signed the letter.”
The group lacked any Jackson Hole representation and consisted of Bruce and employees from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Gov. Mark Gordon’s office, the Wyoming Office of State Land and Investments and the Sage Grouse Implementation Team. Bob Budd, who chairs the latter, signed the letter informing the technical team of the decision.
“The [working group] did not feel it was prudent to accelerate relocation of birds from another core area in 2020,” the letter said. “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 he agreed with other recommendations before conveying reasons why the statewide working group wasn’t going to OK a 2020 grouse translocation.
He cited uncertainty about impacts on the proposed source population for the imported birds, which were going to come from the Green River Basin.
Populations of sage grouse, a recent candidate for Endangered Species Act protections, struggled across the state this year, according to surveys of displaying males at aggregation sites called leks.
Jackson Hole’s isolated and genetically distinct sage grouse were about stagnant in number, but the population is also still hovering at the lowest count on record, with only around 40 known males in the valley.
There’s a much smaller and even more tenuous population that dwells in sage grouse core habitat up the Gros Ventre River valley, where the count came in at just two males (though 18 birds, Bruce said, were seen in the area earlier in the year).
“The Gros Ventre population, they’re tanking,” technical team member and retired biologist Joe 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.”
When the Jackson technical team was hashing out its recommendation to the Sage Grouse Implementation Team last winter, the consensus was that all parties should be ready to bring in birds if the lek count didn’t jump to at least 75 strutting males.
“This translocation discussion, we need to have a plan on the shelf no matter what,” Wyoming Game and Fish Regional Wildlife Coordinator Doug McWhirter said in a March meeting. “Seventy-five, if we’re there and above that, there’s recovery and we’ll let it ride.”
A U.S. Geological Survey research geneticist and Utah State University professor who phoned into the technical team’s meetings also endorsed the idea.
Part of the reason the Sage Grouse Implementation Team pressed paused and handed the translocation project to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is that it’s been over 70 years since sage grouse were moved from one part of Wyoming to another, Bruce said. However, a tentatively successful North Dakota project, using birds from near Rawlins, has been executed in just the last few years.
“The protocol is outdated,” Bruce said, “so Wyoming Game and Fish is developing the ‘when, where, why’ sage grouse translocations may be able to occur in the future.”
The state, Bruce said, is also routing the proposal through the federal land managers — Grand Teton National Park, the Bridger-Teton National Forest and the Bureau of Reclamation — which must navigate the National Environmental Policy Act review process in order to authorize the capture and relocation of birds. Those discussions are already underway, she said.
The Upper Snake Sage Grouse Working Group (which overlaps significantly with the technical team) isn’t being cut out of the translocation equation altogether. The group “offered to help,” Bruce said, and Game and Fish is taking it up on that. At the suggestion of Graham, the Sage Grouse Implementation Team may also loop one of its members into the Jackson Hole meetings so that local sage grouse scientists aren’t as caught off guard by the state’s concerns.
Bruce said Game and Fish intends to be ready for a sage grouse infusion — just in 2021.
“We are preparing ourselves so that in case we have to do translocation next year we will be ready,” Bruce said. “We will consider a whole bunch of factors, including the lek numbers, to make that decision next year.”