After a steady decline in Montana sage grouse numbers beginning in 2008, the big prairie birds surged back in 2014-2016, only to see their populations begin to drop again last year.
That’s part of the information Catherine Wightman, habitat coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, conveyed to the Sage Grouse Oversight Team during a Tuesday presentation in Helena.
In 2017, FWP estimated there were 75,979 sage grouse in Montana.
The information comes in the wake of the Department of Interior’s announcement earlier this month that it would roll back mitigation demands placed on oil, gas and mining industries that develop in areas known to contain sage grouse — a bird that has been petitioned for endangered species protection eight times.
Sage grouse populations are known to drop in the middle of a decade, the question always being whether they will cycle back up or stay down. Hunting has not been shown to affect the birds’ numbers.
The Sage Grouse Oversight Team oversees implementation of Montana's Sage Grouse Conservation Strategy and helps implement the Greater Sage Grouse Stewardship Act.
The Montana sage grouse population data was contained in a graph based on a small group of leks used to aid the department in setting hunting seasons for the birds, but it closely matches a larger data set that tracks the sage grouse’s state population.
“There are a lot of assumptions that go into the model development,” Wightman cautioned. “Some are not based on actual data.”
Paul Lukacs, of the Quantitative Wildlife Ecology Lab at the University of Montana, built the model for the population estimates, which can be based on data going back only to 2002.
Since FWP can’t count all of the state’s sage grouse, it bases its decision on 8 percent of the known mating grounds used by the birds. When there are 30 males counted on a lek, the state allows a more liberal harvest by hunters. Below that number the state goes to a conservative harvest. When populations fall 45 percent below the long-term average for three years, the state closes the area to hunters. In the 2015 upland bird hunting season, FWP shortened the season and cut the harvest in response to sage grouse declines.
“We never thought we’d get there,” Wightman said.
Information that the state is collecting was supposed to be part of a 2020 report to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Ten other western states with sage grouse would also have to file the reports as part of the federal agency’s status review of the birds.
That all changed earlier this month when the Department of Interior announced its changes, including that the review is no longer planned, according to the Associated Press. The review could have led to more protections for sage grouse if their numbers were in decline.
Now the USFWS is saying it will work with the "Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies to document the effectiveness of the conservation plans," AP reported.
So the states are continuing to gather information. The key questions that need to be answered in the reports is what has happened to the birds under state management and what has happened to the sage grouse’s habitat, according to Carolyn Sime, Resource Program manager for the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
States will also have to report what commitments they’ve made, any plans they have, habitat gains and losses, and what has changed, such as the availability of sagebrush — a key habitat requirement for sage grouse survival, she explained.
“So the idea here is to cast a really wide net,” Sime said.
Across the vast landmass of Montana, half of the sage grouse’s breeding grounds are on private land. So far, the state and its partners in sage grouse management have identified 1,000 confirmed active leks. If habitat where a lek was once located changes, such as being plowed for crops, the state lists the lek as confirmed extirpated. So far 56 of these areas have been identified.
“We have a lot of leks out there … that just aren’t as clear,” Wightman said.
There were 500 unconfirmed leks in the state a couple of years ago, she said, which has now been cut in half thanks to investigation by partners. The state also added a new classification for new leks that have been identified, in order to protect the areas until they are confirmed or unconfirmed the following spring.
Out of all of the confirmed leks in the state, only 28 percent of the mapped area contains 75 percent of the core sage grouse habitat — such as Phillips, Valley, McCone, Rosebud, Carter and Beaverhead counties, to name a few.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service is one of the partners helping the state with sage grouse management. According to Kyle Tackett, a resource conservationist, since 2015 his agency has been focusing on keeping rangeland intact in Montana, mainly through conservation easements.
Tackett said NRCS is working to close on 100,000 to 150,000 acres of easements. In addition, the group has helped create more than 700,000 acres of planned grazing on Montana ranches, keeping the acreage in grass and not turned into cropland.
The agency has also helped seed about 15,000 acres back to grazing land, Tackett said.
Since Montana implemented its revised sage grouse management plan in 2015, in part to help hold off federal listing of the birds, 922 projects have been submitted for review to the Sage Grouse Oversight Team, Sime said.
“We hope this dispels any lingering doubt that the review is slowing down projects,” she said.
In some respects, Sime said Montana was playing catch-up when compared to other states with its sage grouse management.
“Since 2015 we’ve accomplished a great deal,” she said. “We have a lot to be proud of. It’s fair to say we’ve not only caught up” but have become a model for other states when it comes to mitigation.
“Our worst fears have not come true,” she added. “The economy has not been halted, and the (sage grouse) population is secure.”