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Sage grouse group sets thresholds for boosting population by bringing in birds

Import of outside birds to augment population appears to be increasingly likely.

By Mike Koshmri March 11, 2020

Seventy-five male sage grouse putting on a show for their hen friends and strutting on local leks this spring may be enough to negate the need to import outside birds this year, biologists agreed last week.

A “technical team” assembled by the state set that loose threshold while weighing how to move forward with the smallest Jackson Hole sage grouse population in history. While drawing up recommendations the team of scientists and managers established three categories — less than 50 grouse, 50 to 75 and more than 75 — and a recommendation for how to respond in April and May according to which category the counts fall into.

“If trends are up, it just sits on the shelf,” technical team member Joe Bohne told his cohorts Friday at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Jackson office. “If trends are down, we do it.”

A year ago surveyors monitoring eight breeding grounds in the central valley counted just 42 male grouse at lek sites in the low-elevation reaches of the “Jackson Hole Core Area,” a designated area where sage grouse are highly protected by the state of Wyoming. Another seven male birds at a single lek were picked up in the Breakneck Flats area of the Gros Ventre River drainage, home to an isolated subpopulation of especially imperiled grouse.

Last summer members of a state working group who oversee the Upper Snake’s sage grouse agreed that a sage grouse infusion to save the genetically adapted population was advised and that they should be ready to execute it this year. Now the technical team — which includes some overlapping members — is hashing out final recommendations that will be forwarded to a statewide Sage Grouse Implementation Team and land managers who would execute the translocation.

Members of the team who gathered Friday parsed the wording of their recommendation, which also included a series of “findings” that led the team to believe it should augment the population.

The team contends that a population “rescue” by bringing in more birds now is prudent because if the grouse count continues to tumble then the local genetic adaptations of birds in the valley could be lost or “swamped” by transplanted birds.

Imported birds would likely be brought in from the Green River Basin, potentially hens with broods from the Calpet Road area southwest of Big Piney.

By one measure the Jackson Hole sage grouse population is looking like it will turn a corner this year after several consecutive years of decline. In early February sage grouse surveyors counting birds laid eyes on 154 birds in southern parts of the valley that contain the best seasonal habitat for the big birds, which subsist on sagebrush in the winter. A year ago — when biologists spent considerably less effort surveying — the tally came in at 78.

“It’s encouraging,” Teton Raptor Center research director Bryan Bedrosian told the technical team. “It’s not 50, which is great.”

The team’s recommendation treats sage grouse dwelling in the Gros Ventre and in Jackson Hole proper as two separate subpopulations that could be augmented with outside birds separately. The goal is to connect the two, which, Bedrosian said, could only be accomplished by growing the populations.

Regardless of whether spring lek counts decline, stagnate or increase only slightly, land managers would still need to propose and vet the relocation plans through their own process. Grand Teton National Park and the Bridger-Teton National Forest would need to run plans through National Environmental Policy Act processes.

The consensus was that all parties should be ready.

“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. “Seventy-five, if we’re there and above that, there’s recovery and we’ll let it ride.”

If spring lek counts detect fewer than 50 male birds, the sentiment was to pull the trigger and bring in birds. If counts land in the 50 to 75 bird range, the multiagency group also seemed inclined to err on the side of caution and recommend an import to bolster numbers.

“The downside is pretty minimal,” Teton Conservation District Executive Director Tom Segerstrom said.

Game and Fish’s sage grouse coordinator, Leslie Schrieber, made the point that translocations are more routine in other parts of the West where sage grouse struggle.

Exceeding 75 male sage grouse this spring would be very unlikely, Bedrosian said, based on expected sex ratios and the prior reproductive productivity of the population.


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