The Greater Sage-Grouse

It’s happened multiple times. I will be casually wandering through the sage, on another adventure for the Pinedale BLM Office. As I walk, I take in the beautiful, serene landscape around me. I relish the peaceful, quiet air.

All of the sudden, I’m so startled that I jump, nearly clearing the earth’s atmosphere. I hear a squawk, and wings moving as a majestic bird takes off from the ground. I never even saw it before it took flight. Sometimes, others birds will join in flight, as they rise from their hidden havens in the sage. They are….the sage-grouse. I often ponder as to whom is actually more startled: me or the grouse?

Sage-grouse, also known as the prairie chickens, are a major species of interest in the Western United States. They nest in the sage (shocking, right?), and are considered to be an “umbrella species”; conserving these species will undoubtedly conserve many other species of plants and animals that make up the fragile sagebrush ecosystem. In recent years, sage-grouse habitat has dwindled significantly, mainly due to drilling and mining. In fact, there was some debate as to whether or not this bird should be listed under the Endangered Species Act. The BLM, along with other organizations such as the Forest Service, have come up with a plan and assessment tool to continually monitor and conserve the sage-grouse and their habitat.

In order to implement this, however, it is of course important to know where the sage grouse spend their time…i.e. what/where is their range? To this end, several biologists at the Pinedale Field Office have caught sage-grouse, attached radio collars to the birds, and then released them. These GPS radio collars allow the birds to be tracked and also give important geographic information regarding the bird’s whereabouts.

We were very excited when Dale (wildlife biologist) came to ask the interns if we would like to go out with him to catch a grouse and remove the radio collar so that the data may be analyzed. We tried to contain our excitement as we happily drove off to the general area where Dale knew this particular grouse was. In order to pinpoint her location, we used a hand-held antenna, as Lara demonstrates below:

Lara with the hand-held antenna, trying to find the location of the grouse.

The receiver is dialed to the same frequency as the grouse’s collar, and we slowly move the antenna around. Beeping signifies that the bird is off in the direction that the antenna is pointing. It takes us about three hours of hunting and closing in on the bird before we are actually near enough to capture her. Dale has brought a net gun that will hopefully capture the bird. We walk slowly, like a predator closing in on its prey. However, the grouse are smart and quick. The grouse we wanted was with others, and they all panic and fly away. We struggle to identify which one has the radio collar. We do successfully do this, but unfortunately the birds have flown off public land and are now on private land. What’s important to realize is that this is the very foundation of working with un-predictable and wild animals. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. We were not discouraged! Dale promised that we would try again, and then even demonstrated how to use the net gun. It was a neat, educational experience with radio telemetry.

After Dale demonstrates how to shoot off the net gun, the net must be meticulously re-packaged back into its holder, so that it goes off properly the next time.

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