Comprehensive look 1st of its kind for sage grouse

2009-12-07T00:00:00Z Comprehensive look 1st of its kind for sage grouseBy BRETT FRENCH Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
December 07, 2009 12:00 am  • 

Greater sage grouse face a variety of threats, but one of them isn’t hunting, according to the most comprehensive research on sage grouse ever compiled.

With urban expansion, diseases including West Nile virus, invasion of exotic plants, fire, livestock grazing and energy development, sage grouse seem to be taking blows from all sides.

“There are a lot of issues that are challenging long-term conservation,” said Steve Knick, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who authored some of the studies and co-edited the compilation.

The research, available online, will be published in book form next year. It significantly updates the only book ever written on sage grouse, published in 1952. The research is also weighing heavily in the deliberations by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on whether to list the greater sage grouse as an endangered species — a decision that is expected in February.

Grouse are reliant on large swaths of undeveloped sagebrush grasslands.  Despite the evidence that the birds are threatened in several locations and on several fronts, however, listing of the species across its range is unlikely, said Rick Northrup, statewide game bird coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

“I personally don’t think it will happen on a rangewide basis,” he said. “It may happen to smaller geographical areas; they could be listed on parts of their range.”

That range covers 120 million acres across 14 states, including Montana and Wyoming. Of that acreage, more than 70 percent is on public lands, half of it managed by the Bureau of Land Management. But like most wildlife, the population of sage grouse is only an estimate. Exact figures are hard to come by.

According to 2007 field surveys, 88,816 male sage grouse were counted on 5,042 leks (mating grounds) in the West. That compares to a rough estimate of about 14,000 displaying males in Montana on 917 leks, Northrup said. From the number of males, Northrup uses some calculations to estimate the state’s entire fall sage grouse population at about 127,000.

Despite the bird’s comparatively strong showing in Montana and the longest sage grouse hunting season of 10 states, interest in hunting the birds has declined.

“It was a way more popular game bird in the past,” he said.

The annual harvest in Montana is between 3,000 and 5,000, Northrup said. That compares to a harvest of about 40,000 in the early 1980s. Since 2007, the state has held sage grouse hunter bag limits to two a day, four in possession. Montana’s harvest is a far cry from the estimated 10,378 sage grouse killed by hunters in Wyoming in 2007, down from an estimated 37,607 in 2006.

Yet scientists such as Jack Connelly, a research biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game who co-authored a chapter on hunting for the book, say that hunter harvests, as long as they are kept to 10 percent or less of the population, have no negative effect on sage grouse.

“The way that hunting is managed, we’re dealing with short seasons and small bag limits,” Connelly said. “It’s a very conservative approach and there’s no indication that it’s harmful to the population at all.”

Northrup said FWP’s approach is to maintain the same season and bag limits as long as there are no reasons to make a change.

“Montana still has a lot of sage grouse,” he said. “All indications are that hunting is not having any significant impact on the birds. We need to be looking at more of the long-term drivers like habitat.”

As long as the state can manage sage grouse as a game bird, funds from hunters can be used to secure habitat for the animals through the Upland Gamebird Enhancement Program. So far, the agency has secured 200,000 acres with help from federal funding for its Montana Sagebrush Initiative, a 30-year lease that gives landowners a one-time payment of $12 an acre to protect sagebrush grasslands used by sage grouse.

Although readers don’t have to wait, since most of the chapters are available online, Knick said publication of the scholarly book by the University of California Press is set for 2010.

It’s an in-depth look at a 6-pound bird. Thirty-eight authors contributed to the work along with 68 different reviewers. Western game agencies and university researchers contributed.

“As far as I know, for any game bird it’s the first of its kind,” Connelly said. “When you put it all together it makes an interesting story.”

Contact Brett French at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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