Skip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
Energy Journal: A morning in the life of a sage grouse biologist
top story
ENERGY JOURNAL

Energy Journal: A morning in the life of a sage grouse biologist

{{featured_button_text}}

Welcome to the Star-Tribune’s Energy Journal, a play-by-play of the past week in Wyoming’s wild world of energy. I’m your energy and natural resources reporter, Camille Erickson. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each week here.During the month of April, biologist Leslie Schreiber usually wakes up well before sunrise.

When her alarm goes off at 3:30 a.m., Schreiber will lie in bed and listen for the wind. If it’s whipping, say over 10 miles per hour, she knows she can turn over and go back to sleep. But if it’s calm and the sky is clear, she pulls herself out of bed, makes coffee, gets dressed and heads out to her truck.

It’s sage grouse mating season, and Schreiber, of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, is in charge of mobilizing a team of trained observers across the state to count as many birds as they can find between April 1 and May 7.

Teams of specialists from the Game and Fish Department, the Bureau of Land Management, along with volunteers and consultants, also beat the sunrise to head out to leks. Leks are the breeding grounds where sage grouse faithfully congregate each year. About 1,800 known active leks exist in the state.

“We want to count the birds under ideal conditions,” Schreiber explained. That means counting before day breaks when there is minimal wind and no rain or snow.

On a typical morning of counting, Schreiber will have planned a route to visit multiple leks in the small window of time around sunrise.

She typically pulls her truck off on the side of the road near the coordinates of a known lek. From there, she can either hike to a vantage point or stay near her truck if the lek is close to the road. The seasoned biologist takes out a spotting scope and a pair of binoculars to scout the scene.

She searches for puffs of white feathers on the male birds as they strut around during their elaborate mating ritual. That splash of white can stand out in the dim morning. Female birds are tougher to find, because they camouflage into their surroundings.

If the biologist spots a bird, she starts counting, sweeping her eyes from left to right. Once she’s done counting the group, she goes back to the far left side and starts again.

“They are moving while they are dancing, going behind sage brush,” she explained.

She writes down the numbers on a data sheet: how many males, how many females and any unknowns. Schreiber and her fellow trained observers may visit each lek one to three times to collect the most accurate count they can.

“The birds have fidelity to certain areas,” she noted. “We know where to go, when to go, what to look for. Even though we’re not perfect, we get a good sample.”

***

Every summer, the Game and Fish Department then publishes these sage grouse lek average attendance data. These numbers become a powerful tool to gauge the health of the coveted bird in Wyoming.

Overall, an average of 19.7 male sage grouse were identified in the active leks this year. Of the 80% of known and occupied leks, 18,500 peak male sage grouse were counted. However, active leks declined over the past year by 4%.

“When the number of active leks goes down, it indicates birds are spread out over less leks,” Schreiber noted. “Essentially, if birds are not attending the lek we can’t count them and can’t report their presence through lek attendance data.”

Schreiber isn’t worried by the decrease in active leks in this year’s data.

“It’s just something we need to be aware of and note,” she stated.

If you plot sage grouse lek data on a line graph, it will start to take the shape of undulating hills — rising up, holding steady and then dropping again, on a six- to eight-year cycle. The Game and Fish Department has about six decades worth of data on the bird. But the reasons behind these wide fluctuations in lek counts remain murky, even for scientists. Some have found signs that it’s linked to changes in habitat, food or weather.

This year’s new attendance statistics show the sage grouse population count “leveling out,” according to the Game and Fish Department. In other words, sage grouse population numbers may be in the “trough,” or period between peaks.

***

One thing is known for sure, though: Sage grouse depend on sagebrush.

“Sage grouse are a sagebrush obligate species and could not survive without it,” Schreiber said. “Conserving sage grouse habitat is of vital importance to the well-being of the bird.”

The chubby, speckled bird has captured the attention of the West for decades, and many eyes have turned to Wyoming to protect the imperiled species.

The state is home to more sage grouse than anywhere else in the world.

About three decades ago, sage grouse population numbers tanked to the lowest levels ever recorded in Wyoming, likely attributable to habitat destruction and drought. The attendance numbers released this year are nearly 58% higher than the low in 1996. But they are also 45% below the count recorded in 2016.

Though sage grouse numbers have rebounded, threats to the population still persist.

In the eyes of Alan Rogers, communications director at the Wyoming Outdoor Council, there’s still more the state could, and should, do to protect the special bird.

“Obviously it’s always nice to see a number that is not going down for a change, in terms of population,” he said.

But the average lek attendance number doesn’t always paint the full picture of the sagebrush ecosystem, he added. It’s more of a short-term indicator of the natural population fluctuations.

“If you look historically regardless of the year-by-year numbers, populations have gone down since the 1950s and ‘60s and they’ve gone down steadily,” he said.

“The one thing that sage grouse need to maintain their population is undisturbed habitat,” he added. “There is nothing else you can really do to increase the population, or increase the density of population. They need their space and they need it unmolested by development.”

Collecting this data on sage grouse matters. It informs the state’s conservation strategies and figures into debate when officials wrestle with how to balance both economic development and preservation of the sensitive bird.

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic put a slight damper on the counting routine.

To prevent the spread of the highly transmissible virus, workers could not take flights like they normally would to the more remote leks. Instead, they stuck to on-the-ground reporting, like what Schrieber described. Nonetheless, this year the team of counters managed to visit 80% of known leks across the state. (In a typical year, they average between 87% to 90% of leks).

“I am just one person here,” Schreiber, the biologist said. “I would like to thank all the people, who get up early and figure out if the wind is blowing and if the roads are passable, then go out there and count birds so we can compile the data.”

Last week’s news roundup

COAL

  • Sens. John Barrasso and Mike Enzi held the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works at Wyoming’s Integrated Test Center, to focus on carbon capture and sequestration, or the trapping and reusing of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas and pollutant.
  • Two Interior Department officials in the Trump administration embarked on a visit to Wyoming coal country last week to meet with state partners and tour the nation’s largest and newest coal mines, along the way emphasizing the president’s commitment to the industry.

OIL & GAS

  • The Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming announced on Aug. 14 it will make 282,731 public acres available for leasing to oil and gas companies during the week of Dec. 14. The BLM will accept public comments on the environmental assessment for 30 days.
  • Environmental groups have filed a lawsuit to block liquified natural gas from being transported by rail to ports across the country. The opposition comes in response to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration proposed rules to allow LNG transportation in tanker cars.
  • Kavingali Corp., a medical technology company, announced the opening of its headquarters in Casper last week. According to a news release, “the company is focused on local hire and reutilizing displaced oilfield and gas workers to transition to high tech manufacturing to include custom robotic fingers, thin film coatings and custom prototyping medical devices.”

WIND & SOLAR

  • Lynnette Grey Bull, a member of the Hunkpapa Lakota and Northern Arapaho tribes, is the first Native American woman in the state’s history to run for federal office. She won the Democratic nomination for U.S. House on Tuesday. Grey Bull has called for the state to address climate change and begin what she calls a “just transition” away from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

CONSERVATION & LAND

  • The U.S. Forest Service on Thursday approved the Medicine Bow Landscape Vegetation Analysis, LaVA, project this month. It’s a controversial forest restoration project in southeastern Wyoming aimed at addressing mountain pine beetle infestation, the severity of wildfires and other shifting forest vegetation conditions. It grants the Forest Service the authority to remove and sell beetle-killed timber, with the goal of reducing the risk of wildfires and improving overall forest conditions.
  • Orion Mine Finance will acquiring 5 million combined acres of land and mineral rights in southern Wyoming for $1.33 billion deal, beating out Wyoming’s bid, Star-Tribune’s Nick Reynolds reports.

Last week in numbers

Friday oil prices:

  • West Texas Intermediate (WTI) $42.29, Brent (ICE) $44.28
  • Wyoming General Sour $33.50, Wyoming General Sweet $34.75

Friday natural gas:

  • Henry Hub $2.45

Baker Hughes rig count:

  • U.S 254 (+10), Wyoming 1 (-0)

Quote of the week

“Just outside these doors is a world-class facility where research is currently underway to study how we can create commercial value from carbon dioxide that would otherwise just go up into the air. The center will research how to transform coal-fired power plant emissions into building materials like cement, as well as alternative fuel.”

— Sen. John Barrasso speaking at the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing at the Integrated Test Center last week.

Follow the latest on Wyoming’s energy industry @camillereports

Concerned about COVID-19?

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Energy and Natural Resources Reporter

Camille Erickson covers the state's energy industries. She received her master's degree at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Before moving to Casper in 2019, she reported on business and labor in Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington.

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

News Alerts

Breaking News