POWELL — Karl Bear walked towards the back of a chukar pen to the sound of half-hearted applause. Dozens of partridges beat their wings nervously, crowding against one another and against the rear fence.
By ones and twos, birds made a break for it, winging past the round-shouldered man in the denim shirt, until all the birds were in the air, launching themselves toward the front of the pen. Bear hunched down with a grin.
Bear is a bird farmer in Powell, but he grew up in sage grouse country on the northern edge of Montana. He has watched the famous bird blink out in the wild and read about the political and environmental controversy of saving the grouse from further declines.
And he’s asked himself, could a farmer approach the sage grouse question from a new angle and perhaps do his part in keeping the bird from an endangered species listing?
“I don’t have a lot of biology background,” Bear said. “But I’ve worked with birds for the last 22 years.”
The whole affair has conservationists and biologists in the state shaking their heads. They’ve pushed back on the idea of captive rearing sage grouse since Bear and his financial backer, oilman Diemer True, pressed the Wyoming Legislature for the opportunity.
“My thoughts on captive breeding the bird is it’s a waste of time, a waste of energy and a waste of money,” said sage grouse biologist Matt Holloran.
But True and Bear have been dogged in their attempt.
If the state’s wildlife agency gives the go-ahead, Diamond Wings Upland Game Birds will test the first sage grouse captive breeding program in Wyoming in a matter of months. By spring thaw they could be collecting wild eggs and bringing them to incubators in Powell, where, fingers crossed, Bear’s chicks will hatch, grow to maturity and breed.
But it’s about more than just an experiment in bird rearing. In recent months the controversy of captive breeding has come to the fore of a much larger sage grouse debate as new political leadership takes aim at regulations that hamper the key industries of the West, the economic drivers of Wyoming. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke mentioned captive breeding as a possible approach to failing populations when heralding a massive sage grouse management review mid-summer. And diverse voices from biologists to Gov. Matt Mead have discouraged it as a path to failure for saving the imperiled bird.
For the farmer in a chukar pen in northwest Wyoming, the debate is distant and frivolous. The birds are in decline, why not try to grow more?
“You very well could learn some things. My concern is, what are you going to learn that is not basically already known?” — Matt Holloran, sage grouse biologist
Saving the grouse has been a longstanding challenge in Wyoming, home to about 40 percent of the bird’s population. Its declining numbers brought the risk of an endangered species listing, which in turn threatened strict rules on oil and gas development, ranching and mining.
Wyoming’s economy is heavily dependent on those industries, but its people are variously proud of Wyoming’s wildness, its oil, gas and ranching heritage and its conservation efforts.
The sage grouse sits at a cross section of these conflicting values. It’s also the canary in the proverbial coal mine.
If the birds are in decline, you can assume that Wyoming’s sage brush ecosystem is, too, said Halloran, the sage grouse biologist.
Any research about this bird and its habitat in Wyoming is likely to turn up some of Halloran’s work. He’s been studying sage grouse in Wyoming since the mid-’90s, around the time when the bird’s dropping numbers started to alarm the scientific community. He’s an expert in the ways sage grouse respond to development and the ways to mitigate against disturbances like oil and gas drilling.
And he is dead set against what True and Bear are planning to do. He doesn’t believe they’ve thought it through.
There are a handful of important figures in sage grouse research in Wyoming and with the state’s record of working across disciplines to conserve the bird, they all know each other. Every debate that reaches the public ear has already been hashed out in hallways and hotel lobbies across the state. The Powell farm is no different.
“This has been my argument to [True],” Halloran said. “Focus on the gaps in our knowledge, and there is no (such) focus.”
The grouse farm, as far as Halloran can tell, won’t answer any of the mysteries that exist about sage grouse, and it doesn’t complement the habitat protections Wyoming is known for.
Wyoming led the charge on protecting the grouse by taking a broad view of the landscape. The Wyoming way, mimicked in federal land use plans that now hang in limbo, identifies areas that should prioritize the grouse and those where other uses like oil and gas take precedence. Controversial at first, the approach pleases scientists like Halloran who say there isn’t a sage grouse numbers problem but a sage grouse habitat problem. Industries and ranchers may not agree on some of the hoops they are asked to jump through when drilling or grazing in sage grouse territory, but they’ve been instrumental in hashing out this compromise to protect the bird.
Captive breeding is generally a hail Mary for a dying species. So it worries biologists committed to improving habitat.
They lost that battle in Wyoming when the Legislature agreed to the five-year trial period for grouse farming. But they dusted off their debating notes when the Interior Department plugged captive breeding earlier this year, part of their push to boost energy development by opening up federal regulations for review and revision.
Though some of the debate has cooled over the last few months, as Wyoming’s sage grouse leaders sat down to the business of discussing change, environmental groups say the federal government has taken a path that is not supported by their years of research on the grouse. and, they are confident that the way forward from the Interior Department’s perspective is a way backwards to conservationists.
The Powell farm may be a small effort by a few people, but it’s linked to this larger disagreement for some.
There’s a valid concern about the approach by Diamond Wings, said Halloran, but just how worrisome the farm is in the larger context of sage grouse management, he wasn’t sure.
“I don’t know that I’m overly concerned with the one farm in Powell,” he said. “I think that it’s a bad precedent, and it has the potential to refocus our efforts. We cannot have that happen right now.”
“This is not a silver bullet.” – Diemer True, owner of Diamond Wings Upland Game Birds and Diamond Oil and Gas LLC.
There hasn’t been a rush of farmers eager to try raising the finicky bird. Though the state’s rules allow up to five farms to be certified, only one has so far applied. It’s too expensive, with little promise of a financial return, some argue.
Diamond Wings wouldn’t be able to do it without the financial support of True, said Bear.
True is a lean and tall figure with a sharp profile. He’s is a former state senator and a well-known member of one of Casper’s prominent oil and gas families.
Diemer’s father, H.A. Dave True, started his first company in Wyoming with a partner in 1954. That firm become True Companies and the family-owned business persists as a myriad of businesses from oil and gas exploration to crude pipelines to ranching.
True sold his share of the family business in 2006 and founded his own firm, Diamond Companies. He has served as chairman of the Independent Petroleum Association of America and the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. He won the Chief Roughneck award in 2008 for a lifetime of promoting the industry.
Saving the grouse goes hand in hand with preserving the future of industry in Wyoming, for True. It’s not an unusual perspective. Many of the sage grouse figures in Wyoming are tied to industries. They arguably have the most to lose if sage grouse efforts go haywire. An endangered species listing would hit industry hard and fast.
“Listing the bird has the potential of an annual (negative) economic impact of $5.6 billion across the 11 states that have the bird,” True said.
He and Bear forged a friendship when True was a customer, purchasing pheasants and chukers to be released on his property and hunted. In 2016, True bought the farm, kept Bear on to manage it and petitioned lawmakers for a chance to raise sage grouse.
The former Wyoming senator recently joined the state’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team as well, a cross section of the various groups interested in sage grouse management in Wyoming, from mining companies to environmental groups.
Like Bear, he believes breeding the bird in captivity could help with the larger problem of declining numbers. It’s been done with other animals, from the black-footed ferret to the peregrine falcon, he said.
But he doesn’t agree with some who say farming is a distraction from the habitat approach. The existence of those habitat protections allows for experiments like the Powell farm that are another way Wyoming can keep an endangered species listing at bay, he argued, reiterating comments he’s made in recent months standing before the Game and Fish Commission and in public meetings on sage grouse farming.
“This is not a silver bullet,” he said. “I think people misunderstand that.”
“The whole point in doing this is that we are at a point where the bird is not in great jeopardy, we have enough birds where we can try some things. – Bob Budd, chairman of the Sage grouse Implementation Team.
Talk of captive breeding from the head of the Interior Department created a panic in the conservation community earlier this year.
Bob Budd, chairman of the state’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team has been preaching calm ever since.
Whether it’s captive breeding or population targets, Wyoming’s approach to managing this bird is not going to be derailed, he said.
“I don’t anticipate we are going to change (dramatically),” he said. “The reason is pretty simple: It’s worked.”
He said he’s skeptical of the Powell experiment for some of the same reasons biologists are. But there’s no harm in them trying, he said.
“I think it’s one attempt by someone who wants to see if they can do it,” he said. “We are open minded (in Wyoming) and are willing to take risks that are calculated.”
Other key figures in Wyoming’s sage grouse round table are also willing to give Bear and the bird farm a shot. In fact, the attempt to hatch chicks isn’t much of a challenge.
That part’s been done, at the Calgary Zoo in Canada most recently, and for the last two decades by scientists studying the imperiled Attwater’s prairie chicken in Colorado.
“It won’t surprise me to see the folks have success actually raising birds in captivity,” said Tom Christiansen, the sage grouse program coordinator for the Wyoming Game And Fish Department.
“I think the Bears have shown their interest, their passion, their capability of raising captive game birds,” he said. But the real problem with captive breeding, and the challenge if it is ever a necessity for grouse in Wyoming, is that the birds don’t survive in the wild, Christiansen said.
They don’t adapt and there are a host of unknowns that come along with releasing captive birds into the wild, from disease risks to watered down genetics.
There hasn’t been any planning for those challenges, yet, he said.
Game and Fish was tasked by the Legislature to develop the rule book for sage grouse farming and it’s also the leading agency in Wyoming’s effort to protect the bird’s habitat.
There’s no harm in knowing more about captive rearing the grouse, particularly while the population is still arguably healthy enough to withstand eggs being taken from wild nests, Christiansen said.
But like most biologists, Christiansen said captive breeding is an end of the line effort, not a conservation strategy.
“If we actually ever needed to apply it, it’s going to be a sad story,” he said. “It will mean we have failed.”
“I don’t have all the answers.” — Karl Bear, Powell bird farmer
It was a cold afternoon outside of Powell in mid-December. Bear made his rounds on the Diamond property, a quaint farmhouse at the intersection of two country roads, surrounded by fields the color of dust.
The bird pens, connected by corridors that lead to the barns, look like the grounds of an old nursery. Instead of roses, the greenhouse-like yards topped with netting house brightly plumed pheasants and quick-moving chukars.
Bear has a number of options for where he’ll place the sage grouse if he gets the chance. A breeding area here, a hatching area there. Knowing the habitat demands of the bird, he’s let a field go wild with brush for a future flock of grouse. He and True recently submitted their application to the Game and Fish Department. But they haven’t started the work of preparing sage grouse pens or converting buildings for the bird. They are waiting for state approval before they invest.
Bear said he’s not sure how much this will cost. True declined to speculate. But the Calgary Zoo is spending about $5 million on its captive program, Bear said.
The five-year window for trying bird farming, as per the Legislature, is already down to four years without a single egg collected from the wild.
The groundwork is laid, but it’s an admittedly tight timeline, Bear said. He’s banking on his experience learned from other birds to lead him through. His strategy, since the family started bird farming in 1995, has been trial and error, he said.
“We’ve raised a lot of different birds and they all have their unique little deal about them,” he said. “You’ve got to learn.”
In some ways the grouse’s behavior will differ. Biologists say it needs sage brush to eat, whereas pheasants and chukars eat corn and enriched pellets. In other areas, raising grouse will be much the same, he expects. The incubator system set up for the game birds, which gently rocks the eggs to simulate a hen’s movements and keeps humidity and temperature at a perfect pitch, should work for grouse as well.
He’s is aware of the push back, and it disheartens him.
Driving his pickup through the beet field that separates the hatchery and the bird pens, he wondered at the mentality of those who don’t want him to go forward, or are convinced that he’ll fail.
“It is controversial, the privatizing of wildlife, I understand that,” Bear conceded of the broader issues with captive breeding the wild bird.
Then he rallied, debating strategies with himself, throwing out ways he could collect the bird eggs without damaging wild nests. Maybe instead of using dogs to find clutches, they can radio collar hens at night when the birds are calm and docile, he said. Then picking up eggs will be as easy as coming back later.
“I think we are going to overcome a lot of [debates],” he added. “But we’ll never know until we try.”