BISMARCK, N.D. — Wildlife officials hope to move as many as 60 greater sage grouse from Montana to North Dakota over the next two years to boost a waning population.
The proposal is part of a multistate effort to improve conditions for the birds and keep the federal government from listing them as endangered. Officials in Western states fear that federally mandated protections could severely restrict ranching, grazing and energy development.
"We're trying to find a happy medium where we can still produce and capture the energy that we need, and still keep the birds protected," said Aaron Robinson, sage grouse biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. "Everyone needs to give a little. The sage grouse are already giving. They're being wiped off the landscape in their entire range, and now it's time for the other side to give a little."
Scientists say the sage grouse has lost half of its traditional range and also has been hit hard by the West Nile virus. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2010 determined sage grouse deserved federal protection but that other species were of higher priority. The agency has pledged to make a final decision on listing the sage grouse by late 2015.
Far southwestern North Dakota is on the edge of the sage grouse's historic range. The bird's population in that area peaked at 542 males in 1953, and has steadily declined in the past three decades. Sage grouse hunting was halted in the state in 2008 for the first time in nearly half a century after a steep population drop officials attributed to the West Nile virus.
This year's survey found only 50 males. Wildlife officials would like to see five times that number.
With help from a report the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued in March, North Dakota is beefing up its sage grouse conservation plan, though it's largely technical updates to its 2005 plan. It calls for measures ranging from limits on energy development to incentives for habitat conservation, and adds the proposed bird transplant from Montana.
Montana wildlife officials are trying to determine whether its population is stable enough to lose 30 females; if so, they will be brought next spring to North Dakota's Bowman County.
It's critical that the females meld into the existing population, according to Brian Rutledge, of Fort Collins, Colo., who oversees the National Audubon Society's Sage Brush Initiative.
"Frankly, the success rate (of transplants in other states) has not been great," Rutledge said. "That's largely because we've been trying to restore birds to areas where they no longer exist."
Moving the birds across state borders is unusual, Robinson said, though the birds in southeast Montana, northwest South Dakota and southwest North Dakota are part of one big population.
"We're just taking birds essentially from the same overall population and trying to bolster areas where the birds aren't doing as well," he said.
If the first transplant be successful, another 30 birds will move in 2015. The total cost of the project is estimated at $170,000, with Game and Fish covering half and Fish and Wildlife the other half.
The North Dakota Petroleum Council, a trade association supporting more than 350 energy companies, said it supports efforts to keep wildlife species from being listed as endangered. A council task force is reviewing the Game and Fish's sage grouse plan in advance of an Aug. 1 comment deadline, Vice President Kari Cutting said.
The Little Missouri Grazing Association, which represents ranchers in the region, has no immediate concerns about the potential transplant of birds, President Brian Gerbig said. The association already is doing work to monitor the condition of sage grouse habitat, hoping to show that cattle can co-exist with the birds, he said.
"We're trying to do what we can to keep them off the endangered species list," he said. "I don't think anyone can predict what that would lead to."