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Biologists trying to find out why the sage grouse is disappearing in the West

BANNACK - Ben Deeble awoke before dawn last Sunday in the back of his pickup and peered out through the camper-shell window at the sea of sagebrush that surrounded him.

His eyes fixed on a nearby knoll rising on the horizon like the long gentle swell of a wave. There, in a clearing in the sage, stood two male sage grouse. Silhouetted against the pale prairie bunchgrass background, the two birds looked as big as turkeys.

"They looked like a couple of old bachelors in an empty singles bar," said Deeble. "They were just standing there staring at each other and looking bored."

Deeble, an upland game-bird biologist, had driven to the upper Big Hole Valley from Missoula the previous night to search for sage grouse. The clearing on the knoll, about 100 yards from his truck, was a lek - a site where sage grouse historically congregate in the spring to perform their mating rituals.

Leks are sometimes referred to as "dancing grounds," because of the distinctive strutting behavior of the males as they parade before the assembled hens.

The lek Deeble visited Sunday is a fairly well-known site, located in the foothills of southwestern Montana's Pioneer Mountains, where sage grouse have been observed in their mating displays since the 1950s. In recent years, Deeble said, as many as 35 birds have been counted together in the clearing during March and April.

Last Sunday's weather - cold and snowy with a biting wind - was the antithesis of the clear, calm conditions that seem to spark the most intense sage grouse lek activity, according to Deeble.

And yet the presence of only the two lonely sage grouse bachelors at the lek seemed to symbolize the plight of the birds throughout much of their native range in the West.

Last week, leaders of the conservation group American Lands Alliance announced that they plan to petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in coming months to use the Endangered Species Act to protect sage grouse in several Western states.

In the past 150 years, according to an environmental lawyer for another conservation group, the birds' numbers have dropped from an estimated 1.2 million to about 140,000.

"The science is showing us a listing decision is warranted," said Mark Salvo, grasslands advocate for American Lands Sage Grouse Conservation Project in Portland, Ore. "What exists today is only about 8 percent of its historic numbers."

Salvo said the birds are faring best in parts of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and southeast Oregon. Sage grouse are extinct in Kansas, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Nebraska and British Columbia.

Since 1993, Deeble said, conservationists, hunters and agencies responsible for land and wildlife management have been concerned about a dramatic decline in the numbers of sage grouse harvested by hunters in southwestern Montana. From a peak estimate of almost 9,000 birds in 1979, the harvest plummeted to 566 in 1993. And it has remained far below average since then.

"It wasn't really clear what the reason was: fewer hunters or fewer grouse," Deeble said.

Seeking answers to that puzzle, the Bureau of Land Management, which manages much of the sage grouse habitat in southwestern Montana, began an extensive study of the birds a couple of years ago, according to Jim Roscoe, a BLM biologist based in Dillon.

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is cooperating with the federal agency on the study, along with "a bunch of volunteers," Roscoe said.

The three-pronged study, he said, involves radiotelemetry documentation of grouse movements, searching for new leks and monitoring established leks, and continued collection of hunter-harvest data.

All three aspects of the study utilize volunteers extensively, Roscoe said.

That's where Deeble enters the picture.

"I started wondering if there were contributions that bird hunters could make," Deeble said. "We have well-trained dogs and skills at finding upland birds. And we have the time in the spring and a little bit of cabin fever."

He started rallying support for his plan with fellow hunters in the Big Sky Upland Bird Association in Missoula, and began looking for a source of money to cover gas and expenses for volunteers.

Deeble got a grant for the project from the Cinnabar Foundation, headed by conservationist and ethical hunting proponent Jim Posewitz of Helena. Last spring, Deeble was able to recruit nine volunteers, including himself, to help monitor known sage grouse leks, search for new ones and record bird sightings. Together, they accounted for 25 "person-days" in the field with their hunting dogs.

"This year," Deeble said, "we hope to get twice that many."

Volunteers usually start out their day quietly observing a known lek, he said.

"I usually camp out overnight near a lek to see if birds are coming in and dancing," said Deeble. "At first, I listen for the birds. The sound is hard to describe. It's like a cork being pulled from a bottle. It's quite loud. Sometimes, if there's a full moon, the birds will display all night. Usually, they display from a half-hour before dawn to about an hour after dawn.

"The males tend to be evenly spaced out about 10 yards apart. They hold a miniature territory on the display grounds. The males are big. They're twice the size of the females, and they look almost as big as a turkey. They have a big tail, with spiky tail feathers that they fan out. They're a brilliant black and white. And they have brilliant, bright yellow air sacks that they inflate in their necks. It's the sound of the air sacks being inflated and displayed that makes the popping sound. The sack is surrounded a fringe of tiny feathers that stand out like a halo of fuzz."

Unfortunately, Deeble said, the volunteers sometimes don't find birds at a historic lek.

"The question now," he said, "is are they vacant because the population has declined or disappeared, or has the lek moved to a neighboring knoll. That's where the dogs really come in handy.

"Last spring, we found some activity on the leks. Some are still obviously healthy. But it also appeared that maybe 25 percent of the leks were abandoned. And some leks, where 80 to 100 birds have been observed historically, were down to just a half-dozen birds. So, it appears that populations are depressed. But we hope they're not past the stage of being restorable."

Several causes could be to blame for the decline of sage grouse, Deeble added. But loss of habitat seems to be a likely culprit.

Sage grouse are totally dependent on a highly specific habitat - native sagebrush.

"They need sagebrush to survive," Deeble said. "Adults eat almost nothing else. They nest in it, find shelter from predators and harsh weather in it, and raise their chicks in it, especially where it's close to water."

Population declines also could be related to an increase in subdivisions, and their associated fences and powerlines, he said.

"Sage grouse do a surprising amount of flying at night," Deeble said. "And it's not unusual for them to hit wires. There are just more power and telephone lines in their habitat."

Over-harvest by hunters is another possibility, he said.

Most biologists don't believe hunting has a big impact on populations, Deeble said. But he and other hunters did not approve of Montana FWP's decision to increase the daily sage grouse bag limit from two to three this year.

Loss of habitat - through fire, herbicide spraying, subdivisions and agricultural conversion - seems to be the factor most closely tied to sage grouse declines, Deeble said.

"It's interesting," he said. "The BLM assumed in the past that an area of two square miles around a lek was enough sagebrush to support a population. But now they've put radios on birds. And they're finding, in at least one case, birds with a home range of 800 square miles that are migrating between Montana and Idaho."

That migratory population is found south of Dillon, near Monida Pass.

Those birds, Deeble said, have lost thousands of acres of habitat in Idaho since the mid-'80s, as native sagebrush was burned and plowed under to grow potatoes.

"That may be responsible, in part, for the smaller populations we have in southwest Montana," he said. "There's been a real war on sagebrush in the West. And it may take 25 to 50 years to grow a new stand. There's an old adage that the tallest sage is where you can grow the best crops. That's still going on."

After watching for birds at the lek last Sunday, Deeble turned over the job of finding them to his wide-ranging English setter, Boss. Despite the dog's enthusiasm for the task, he flushed only a single sage grouse while scouring several miles of sagebrush cover.

But their work, along with the efforts of numerous other volunteers, will help establish management policies to protect sage grouse in the future, according to BLM biologist Roscoe.

"The bottom line," said Roscoe, " is that we're trying to find major landscape things this bird selects for. Back in the '60s and '70s there was a major effort to eradicate sagebrush habitat for forage production. A lot of those areas have come back. But are the birds using them? Is it the same species of sage? How much effect has that had on sage grouse populations? There might be subtle changes.

"Ultimately, we want to be able to take that information and put it in a local context for some sort of conservation planning. If, in fact, the sage grouse is petitioned for listing (under the Endangered Species Act), that conservation planning is one thing available to mitigate or avoid listing. Or, if it is listed, it may guide the things we can do to make recovery possible."

Accomplishing that goal will require the efforts of many groups, individuals and agencies, Roscoe said. Colorado and Idaho have made some progress in developing strategies for sage grouse management, he said, through the cooperation of "sage grouse working groups." Those working groups have included all the stake holders in the issue: government agencies, hunters, conservationists, loggers, miners and landowners.

"In Montana and Wyoming, which are the last strongholds for sage grouse, we haven't done as much," Roscoe said. "But I think we're catching up. We'll have to if it ever comes down to listing."

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