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Wildlife officials who have been transplanting sage grouse from Wyoming to North Dakota since 2017 have adjusted their tactics this summer to try to keep relocated birds from wandering back out of the state in search of better habitat.

The fine-tuning of the nearly million-dollar effort comes after about a decade of planning and implementation, coinciding with other efforts to save the bird that some believe is on the brink of calamity.

But it’s still not known whether the sage grouse population in North Dakota will ever return to a level at which the upland game bird can be hunted.

The answer likely hinges not only on the condition and quantity of sagebrush in a small fraction of the state but also on the politics playing out at the national level involving the longstanding debate of how energy development and the environment can coexist.

“It’s definitely a hot topic right now,” said Jesse Kolar, upland game management supervisor for the state Game and Fish Department.

But the history of it is a long one.

Sage grouse history

The sage grouse is a chicken-size bird known for an elaborate courtship ritual in which males “dance” – strut around, puff out their chest and fan their tails – to attract females to mating grounds known as leks.

They’re important to birders, naturalists and hunters, who seek them both for their meat and as trophies to mount.

North Dakota is on the edge of the sage grouse’s Western range. Through the years, the bird’s habitat has shrunk to western Bowman and Slope counties and southern Golden Valley County -- essentially the far southwestern corner of the state.

Sage grouse numbers peaked at nearly 550 in the mid-20th century but declined in the decades since, Game and Fish data show. West Nile virus entered the population in the early 2000s and in just a few years decimated it. Hunting, which had dated to the mid-1960s, was shut down in 2008. It remains closed 11 years later.

“It is unlikely we will reopen the sage grouse hunting season in the foreseeable future,” Kolar said.

A spring survey conducted by Game and Fish counted 29 male sage grouse, compared with 27 males the year before. Populations that small are susceptible to being wiped out by an outbreak of disease or drought, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The count was a little higher than last year, but the population and number of active leks remain far below the population objective of 250 males,” Kolar said.

The number of male sage grouse across the western U.S. bottomed out in 2013 due to loss of habitat and West Nile virus. The Fish and Wildlife Service in 2010 had determined that sage grouse warranted federal protection but that other species were of higher priority, and it pledged to make a final decision on listing the bird as threatened or endangered by the end of 2015.

The agency decided that year that protection was no longer warranted, and it removed the sage grouse as a candidate. A study by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies released in 2015 concluded that the number of male birds had “rebounded significantly.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service cited “an unprecedented conservation partnership across the western United States that has significantly reduced threats to the greater sage grouse across 90% of the species’ breeding habitat.”

A part of that was an effort that North Dakota Game and Fish started in 2013 to boost numbers of the birds in the state.

Bringing in grouse

The agency that year began beefing up its 2005 sage grouse conservation plan, calling for measures ranging from limits on energy development to incentives for habitat conservation. Game and Fish also proposed transplanting birds from another state.

“The project took a long time to hit the ground, principally because we had to talk with other states and decide where to get sage grouse from,” Kolar said. “Sage grouse was being considered for endangered species listing in 2015, and other states were concerned about having sage grouse taken out of their population.”

North Dakota eventually found a willing partner in Wyoming and in 2017 began transplanting birds in the spring, before hens had their chicks. Officials in the first two years of the program moved in 146 birds -- 60 males, 65 hens and 21 chicks -- and fitted them with tracking devices.

But a problem surfaced early on -- the soon-to-be mother grouse weren’t sticking around once they got here.

“The females weren’t staying in North Dakota; they weren’t having success rearing chicks,” Kolar said.

Last summer, Game and Fish decided to sample a new tactic, and this summer they adopted it full-scale.

“We changed our strategy. We’re capturing them (hens) in the summer and transferring them after they’ve had their chicks in Wyoming,” Kolar said.

The theory -- based on a similar, smaller-scale effort that succeeded in California -- is that the egg-carrying hens didn’t think there was enough sagebrush cover in North Dakota, both in terms of density and height, to adequately protect their broods, so they were going in search of better habitat in neighboring Montana and South Dakota.

Hens that hadn’t successfully bred in Wyoming before being brought to North Dakota also were going in search of males. Wildlife officials turned to artificial insemination but had limited success.

By waiting until summer and then bringing the hens to North Dakota with their chicks, “our hope is that while they have that brood with them … it will prevent them from moving as far, as fast,” Kolar said.

Preliminary results are positive, but time will tell.

"North Dakota is center stage on learning whether it’s possible and/or effective to bolster sage grouse populations via translocations," Kolar said.

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A plant will be a big factor in the ultimate outcome.

“Our hope is that we still have enough sagebrush to have sage grouse in the state, but that’s yet to be determined,” Kolar said.

Saving sagebrush

Nearly a decade ago, local, state and federal officials teamed up to try to boost the declining sagebrush habitat in southwestern North Dakota, coinciding with efforts in other sage grouse states.

They did it plant by plant -- putting about 5,000 in the ground in 2010 and 2011, according to Cindy Zachmeier, area biologist in Dickinson for the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“We worked with local landowners, got permission to plant these sagebrush plants out there,” she said. “This was the first time we had really attempted to do this in North Dakota.”

It was a collaborative effort involving NRCS, Game and Fish, the federal Bureau of Land Management and the Bowman/Slope Soil Conservation District.

The work was funded by about $1 million in federal grant money and also included converting cropland back to grass, working with ranchers on grazing management plans, installing reflectors on fences to reduce bird mortality and holding educational seminars, according to Game and Fish Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams.

“Has it been successful in terms of birds numberwise? We won’t know for a long time,” he said.

Years later, it’s difficult to say how many of the plants have survived, but “overall, we felt it was successful, and the plants did well,” Zachmeier said.

The program continues, with the federal agency still willing to work with any interested landowners on conservation practices that will benefit sage grouse. Sage grouse and grazing cattle can easily co-exist, Zachmeier said, and the plants themselves are hardy and handle drought well.

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Conversion of sagebrush habitat to cropland remains the biggest threat, according to Zachmeier.

But some view energy activity as a concern, as well. 

Oil and birds

Oil and birds don’t mix -- at least on federal land.

President Barack Obama’s administration adopted sweeping land use restrictions aimed at keeping sage grouse off the Endangered Species List. The net effect in North Dakota is that restrictions on oil activity in sage grouse habitat are mandated on federal land but only recommended on state and private land, according to Tim Zachmeier, wildlife biologist in the Bureau of Land Management’s state field office.

Neither the governor’s office nor the energy industry is pleased with the federal restrictions. The North Dakota Petroleum Council believes they are “at least as restrictive, if not more restrictive in some areas, as a (Endangered Species Act) listing,” said Kari Cutting, vice president of the trade group that represents about 500 energy companies.

The governor’s office worries that federal restrictions might isolate mineral tracts on state and private land and could actually hurt the birds by ignoring the “big picture” and pushing energy development into nonfederal areas where the impact to sage grouse might actually be greater, according to an adviser for Gov. Doug Burgum.

The BLM, Petroleum Council and Game and Fish all say there isn’t a lot of energy development in sage grouse habitat in North Dakota. There is a pocket of development between Rhame and the Montana border, and “resource planning down in that area definitely has become more important down there, not just for sage grouse but also for many other species,” Williams said.

Kolar added that “there are areas in core sage grouse range where there are roads and powerlines that have fragmented their range.”

It’s a bigger issue at the national level.

The Trump administration is working to ease sage grouse-related restrictions on oil and gas drilling and mining in several states. Federal officials say it will give more flexibility to states. Environmentalists say it will undermine protections for the birds. The Audubon Society has said the changes will dismantle “the greatest example of landscape conservation in American history.”

In North Dakota, Williams said, there has been a lot of discussion between wildlife officials and energy companies about oil and gas development coexisting with wildlife, and he thinks that in general companies seek to do what they can to mitigate impacts. “I would like to think there’s some situational awareness on their part … as far as drilling locations,” he said.

But whatever happens at the national level could impact North Dakota. Federal policy decisions “don’t mandate what we’re doing with our populations directly, but they can impact the habitat on the ground, which could prompt us to change our goals or directives,” Kolar said.

Future of the program

Nearly $900,000 in state and federal money has been budgeted for North Dakota’s relocation project through 2021. Grouse are to be brought into the state again next year, with the final year dedicated to research and analysis. It should answer whether the change in translocation strategy worked. It’s unknown if it will help answer the question about hunting.

While sage grouse has never really been a bird highly sought by hunters, “it was an opportunity people appreciated,” Williams said. “They’re a big game bird, exciting to see and pursue.”

Whether the population ever returns to huntable levels in North Dakota will depend not only on weather, oil activity, national politics and transplant efforts but also on the success of the birds in neighboring states.

“When there’s more birds in northwest South Dakota, northeast Wyoming and southeast Montana, that’s going to mean that there’s more birds for us here – there’s going to be that spillover effect,” Williams said.

But all Game and Fish can control is its own efforts. Agency officials are optimistic.

“The goal is to have the birds be as successful as possible, and so far that seems to be happening,” Williams said.

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Reach Blake Nicholson at 701-250-8266 or Blake.Nicholson@bismarcktribune.com

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