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Powell business plans to search again for sage grouse eggs

Casper Star Tribune Jan 22, 2021 POWELL — This spring, a Powell-based business will resume its efforts to become the first U.S. organization to raise greater sage grouse in captivity.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department recently approved Diamond Wing Upland Game Birds’ plans to again try collecting wild sage grouse eggs.

Last year, Diamond Wing searchers found nine nests in about three weeks of laborious surveys of known nesting areas across the state. Unfortunately, all had been depredated and they failed to collect a single viable egg.

But changes to this year’s permit will make the effort easier, said Diamond Wing owner Dennis Brabec. The project has been certified to employ radio telemetry, as well as other technology, to locate birds’ nests.

The process will be expensive, partly due to the labor needed to capture grouse, outfit them with tracking devices and then use radio signals to track them as they move miles within the nesting areas.

Radio telemetry has been used by multiple agencies — including recently by University of Oregon researchers and in Game and Fish translocation efforts — and is considered a safe way to monitor the species in decline, Brabec said.

“It’s not a new technique or new technology,” he said. “It’s something that’s been done for years. It’s expensive, but it is a very tried and proven technology.”

The work will be funded by the Western States Sage Grouse Recovery Foundation. The 501©3 charity was founded in 2019 by Diemer True, one of Wyoming’s largest oil entrepreneurs and former owner of Diamond Wing.

Diamond Wing has previously applied for certification three times, but only followed through with a search for wild eggs for the first time last year — chaperoned by Wyoming Game and Fish Department wildlife biologists and game wardens. Game and Fish officials can’t help with the experiment, but are charged with making sure the team isn’t putting too much pressure on the grouse and following regulations in collection and raising the species should they get that far. Even if they were to incidentally find eggs while traveling with the team, Game and Fish personnel can’t point them out.

If the company is successful, Karl Bear, manager of the Powell-area farm, will be in charge of incubating, hatching and raising the grouse. Diamond Wing produces tens of thousands of pheasant, chukar, Hungarian partridges and other species for deliveries to controlled shooting areas in the West. It’s the largest game bird farm in the state, including the Game and Fish pheasant rearing facilities.

The license to conduct the experiment is issued to Bear, due to his expertise, which is required by state mandates, and the grouse would be reared in a place set aside from other game bird production areas.

Only Calgary Zoo has succeeded in raising a broodstock of sage grouse in captivity, releasing the first birds from the experiment to the wild last year.

The Wyoming Legislature’s 2017 decision to allow private businesses to raise grouse has been criticized by conservation groups and biologists who feel if an experiment is done, it should be attempted by state or federal affiliated scientists. Some worry about data being considered proprietary or the possibility of a company releasing diseased birds into the environment. Diamond Wing was forced to close a large part of its operation and build separate hatching and rearing facilities to meet requirements.

Other critics have assumed the species will be used by the game bird farm for profit. But Brabec, a petroleum engineer and co-owner of Fiddleback Farms, is quick to remind the entire project is being done under the watchful eye of Game and Fish officials and none of the eggs or birds can be used for profit.

“What a lot of people don’t understand is we don’t own those eggs or the birds,” he said. “Some people thought, ‘Well, they’ll be selling those eggs all for, you know, thousands of dollars.’ No, we can’t do that. Our whole mandate is to hatch those eggs and prove that we can raise them in captivity.”

The legislation that made the experiment possible has a sunset clause of Dec. 31, 2022. It’s unclear what would happen to a brood stock (should they be successful) when that deadline arrives or if the Legislature will extend the time to continue the experiment. Until then, the Diamond Wing team is simply concentrating on finding eggs.

Last spring, team members and Game and Fish officials walked more than 100 miles through the state’s rugged sagebrush steppe, with Bear enduring the pain of a fresh knee operation. He has been trying to get the project off the ground for the better part of the past two decades. Bear was disappointed to find no eggs last year, but he said they learned a lot and are far from giving up.

“This is the year,” he said.

A male sage grouse tries to impress a group of hens, at left, in April 2014 near the base of the Rattlesnake Range in southwest Natrona County. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department recently approved Powell-based Diamond Wing Upland Game Birds' plans to try collecting wild sage grouse eggs.

Alan Rogers file, Star-Tribune