Fight to save rare sage grouse continuing

Considering what sage grouse have suffered in the past 200 years, the most recent ordeal was a joyride.

The indignity lasted only about 26 hours.

Netted on a moonless night March 27 in the glare of a hand-held spotlight in southeastern Oregon, 24 sage grouse were weighed, measured, blood-tested, checked for parasites, collared with tiny radio transmitters and placed in individual cardboard boxes by Oregon and Washington biologists assisted by a group of Spokane volunteers.

While four helpers stayed behind for another night of trapping, Doug Pineo, who'd been up all night, immediately embarked on the 11-hour drive to deliver the birds from sage range where they are abundant to a new home where they are little more than a memory.

At 3:30 a.m. March 28, Washington Fish and Wildlife Department staffers were inventorying the grouse in the back of the pickup south of Creston. They recorded the radio frequency on each bird's transmitter.

Most of the birds were calm as Mike Finch and Todd Baarstad of the Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area, and Howard Ferguson, the agency's district wildlife biologist, navigated by GPS off-road into the rangeland and parked.

A box in each hand, the men shuttled the birds by foot to a large box pen. They could tell the sex of the bird they were carrying without looking at the mark on the box. Each female weighed about 3 pounds, males about 6.

The greater sage grouse native to Northwest states is the largest North American grouse species.

Headlamps helped the men navigate about 150 yards each way in the blackness through the shoulder-high sagebrush.

Each sage grouse was carefully removed from its box. The birds lightened their loads on the biologists hands and were ready to fly, but they were placed in the large pen, where they could get their bearings for an hour before daylight and rehydrate by pecking at cantaloupe slices.

Finch retreated to the pickup and raised the antennae for a radio tracking device. A popping sound indicated a grouse that had been released in 2008 was nearby.

"It's fascinating," said Finch, who was raised on a nearby farm. "This was a lek (mating ground) years ago, before the grouse disappeared. The birds brought here from Oregon last year didn't know that, but there's something that draws them to this spot."

At least two females and a male released last year were in the vicinity to welcome the new arrivals to Lincoln County. Some transmitters were defective, so there could have been more.

A half-hour before sunrise, the men walked quietly back to the pen. Baarstad slowly pulled on ropes from 50 feet away to open the sliding doors. The birds walked out, stretching their necks and scoping out the new digs before flushing -- one, two or three at a time -- to melt into the sagebrush.

With the help of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Washington State University and more volunteers, the birds will be radio tracked through the year.

Meriwether Lewis reported sage grouse "in great abundance" in 1806 as his expedition passed through the mouth of the Snake River and areas of present-day Benton and Klickitat counties.

But settlers with plows and livestock, and liberal hunting seasons raised havoc with the flocks.

As early as 1860, sage grouse had declined and were rarely seen in some areas that formerly contained numerous birds, according to research cited in Washington's sage grouse recovery plan.

In 1897, the sage grouse hunting season ran Aug. 15-Dec. 1 with a bag limit of 10 birds a day.

By the early 1900s, sage grouse had been extirpated from Spokane, Columbia, and Walla Walla counties and perhaps others.

In 1923, sage-grouse hunting was closed statewide.

By 1950, grouse numbers had improved somewhat and limited hunting was allowed again.

But the continued land changes from the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project and other development was dooming the birds regardless of hunting. Studies show the remaining birds declined 62 percent from 1970 to 2003.

The invasion of cheatgrass and other noxious weeds had an impact, as well as fires that wiped out sage lands in areas such as the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Washington's last limited hunting seasons for sage grouse ended in 1988.

The sage grouse was listed as a threatened species by the state of Washington in 1998. By 2004, Washington's breeding population was estimated at slightly more than 1,000 birds, concentrated mostly in three areas:

-- Douglas and Grant counties with about 625 sage grouse riding the coattails of private lands enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program.

-- The Army's Yakima Training Center with about 390 birds.

Despite habitat improvements and translocation of birds to bolster genetic diversity, a 2008 survey indicated the grouse in these two havens had continued to decline to 450 birds in Douglas-Grant counties and 190 at the training center.

The current statewide sage grouse population estimate, including recent arrivals, is 670 birds.

"These grouse are cyclical, and we hope that's what accounts for the recent drop," said Derek Stinson, the Fish and Wildlife Department's endangered species biologist.