Sage Grouse

A male sage grouse puffs out its chest early April 17 on a lek in southern Natrona County. Some say changing federal policy could affect populations of the bird in the West as well as key industries that operate in Wyoming.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

Wyoming’s recent decision to raise sage-grouse in captivity as a “conservation” measure left many professional biologists scratching their collective heads. Many of us were even more perplexed when Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke apparently came out in support of this action.

Thanks to scientific research dating to the 1930s, we know a great deal about sage grouse biology and management. Many papers have been published on conservation of sage grouse populations and habitat, including a blueprint for conserving them written by 20 authorities on sage grouse and sagebrush habitats. Additionally, at least 10 state plans for conserving sage grouse have been released.

Although there were some differences in approach and emphasis, all of these documents shared at least two things in common: All focused on the importance of habitat conservation and restoration, and none suggested captive rearing of sage grouse as a viable management tool for restoring or maintaining populations.

Captive rearing was used to establish pheasants and chukars in unoccupied habitat many years ago and is still used to provide game birds for the hunting public. So, why did these various reports on sage grouse pay little attention to the technique as a conservation tool? Were the authors of these documents unaware of past captive rearing efforts, or did they choose to ignore them? Of course not.

For the most part, the authors were all highly trained biologists. They knew that numerous state agencies had evaluated captive rearing as a management tool for decades and virtually all studies concluded it was ineffective for most game birds. In fact, the release of pen-reared bobwhites has been implicated in the decline of wild bobwhite populations in large part from disease and degradation of the gene pool.

For sage grouse, the authors knew that captive rearing had been tried in Idaho from the 1960s to the ‘80s. The end result? All of the grouse died in captivity. They also knew that second-generation captive-reared sage grouse typically produced over 90 percent infertile eggs.

Additionally, they were aware of ongoing captive rearing efforts at the Calgary Zoo that have been very costly but have yet to enhance wild populations.

Finally, the authors realized that Colorado conducted extensive research on captive rearing of sage grouse with the goal of using this technique to augment small sage grouse populations and improve their genetic health. While Colorado documented some limited success under very specific conditions, they stressed that captive rearing is not a viable technique for broad-scale application or starting new populations.

So, the authors of these reports ignored captive rearing because they knew it was an ineffective practice that was costly and labor-intensive.

Despite having no substantial evidence of support, the Wyoming Legislature favored this proposal and passed a law allowing captive rearing of sage grouse by private entities. One senator stated grouse would lay a second clutch if their nests are raided.

“When you take them out of the nest the birds can lay more eggs,” he remarked.

The truth is that sage grouse have relatively low reproductive rates and seldom renest. Moreover, they are extremely sensitive to disturbance. The senator’s remarks may have been true for pheasants but were absolutely wrong for sage grouse.

Another senator said captive-bred birds could be transplanted to areas where they had disappeared. Yet in most cases sage-grouse population loss is related to habitat loss or degradation. How could transplanting pen-reared grouse into an area with little or no habitat possibly work? If wild birds can’t survive in poor habitat, why would we expect pen-raised birds to do so?

Proponents of the bill also remarked that it was “a major potential protection for all the industries, including oil and gas” and claimed captive-bred grouse could be used on private hunting reserves. This reeks of privatizing wildlife and using pen-raised birds to mitigate industry-generated habitat impacts – totally unacceptable approaches. Worse yet, if wild eggs are taken and all captive-reared birds are expected to die, there is zero conservation value for such a program.

It appears Wyoming laid an egg with this ill-advised legislation. The state would be wise to reconsider it at the next legislative session. In the meantime, we can only hope that the idea does not catch on in other states.

Dr. Jack Connelly is a retired state wildlife agency research biologist who spent more than 40 years studying sage grouse and the sagebrush ecosystem.

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