Sage grouse captive breeding success doubtful

220px-Centrocercus_urophasianus_-USA_-male-8 Wikipedia

Greater Sage-grouse. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Published Dec. 10, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Critics of sage grouse captive breeding doubt it will succeed.”

Note: The American Ornithological Society’s spelling is “Greater Sage-Grouse.”  The Associated Press style when the full name is not used is “sage grouse.”

By Barb Gorges

Over the eons, the greater sage-grouse figured out how to prosper in the sagebrush.

It’s not an easy life. Some years are too wet and the chicks die. Others are too dry with few leaves, buds, flowers or insects and the chicks starve. Some years there are too many hungry coyotes, badgers and ravens.

Every spring the sage grouse go to the meet-up at the lek, the sage grouse version of a bar [To find where to see sage grouse in Wyoming go to https://wgfd.wyo.gov/Habitat/Sage grouse-Management/Sage grouse-Lek-Viewing-Guide]. The males puff out their chests vying for the right to take the most females, then love them and leave them to raise the chicks on their own.

Experienced hens look for the best cover for their nests. They teach the young how to find food and avoid predators. In fall, every sage grouse migrates to winter habitat, 4-18 miles away.

In the past hundred years, obstacles were thrown in the path of sage grouse, including in their Wyoming stronghold where sagebrush habitat can be found across the whole state except in the southeast and northwest corners.

The low-flying birds collide with fences, vehicles, utility lines. The noise from oil and gas operations pushes them away. Sagebrush disappears with development.

Each state is responsible for all wildlife within its borders. But if a species heads for extinction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service steps in. Since 1985, the sage grouse population declined 30 percent across the West. It looked like the species might be listed as either threatened or endangered, curtailing oil and gas drilling and other development.

Last month I explained how Wyoming conservationists, sportsmen, the oil and gas industry, agricultural interests and state and local government collaborated on a state plan to conserve sage grouse. However, the current federal administration wants all the state plans to be examined to see if sage grouse habitat can be more densely developed.

Wyoming’s collaborators strongly disagree with the attempt. Public comments were solicited by the Bureau of Land Management through the end of November and the Forest Service is taking comments through January 5 [https://www.federalregister.gov. In the search area type: Ask Forest Service to Amend Greater Sage-Grouse Land Use Plan.].

Meanwhile, a Wyoming man is hoping to change the dynamics of the sage grouse issue by increasing their population through captive breeding.

Diemer True, of the True Companies (oil and gas drilling, support, pipelines, and seven ranches), and former president of the Wyoming Senate, bought Karl Baer’s game bird farm in Powell.

True convinced the Wyoming Legislature to pass legislation during the 2017 session to allow him and Baer to apply for a permit allowing them to take up to 250 sage grouse eggs from the wild per year and experiment for five years with captive breeding. The idea is that birds can be released, bring up the numbers and maybe allow higher density of development in protected areas.

But no one has been very successful captive breeding sage grouse. No one has successfully released them to procreate in the wild and, if True is successful, he wants his techniques to be proprietary—he won’t share them. He wants to profit from wildlife rather than take the more typical route of supporting academic research.

Gov. Matt Mead signed the captive breeding legislation into law this fall. The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission wrote very specific regulations about it, which you can read at https://wgfd.wyo.gov/Regulations/Regulation-PDFs/REGULATIONS_CH60.

Five permits are allowed, for a total withdrawal of 1,250 eggs per year, but it is doubtful that anyone besides True and Baer will qualify. Consensus among wildlife biologists I spoke to is that True will have trouble finding 250 wild eggs for his permit.

The facility requirements mean True is building new pens separated from the bird farm’s other operations. Despite these best management practices, there’s still a chance captive-bred birds could infect wild birds when they are released.

[The Wyoming Game and Fish Department monitors sage grouse leks every spring to see how successful the previous year’s breeding was. Numbers naturally vary widely year to year. The effects of captive breeding on these surveys will be included when setting hunting limits.]

No one who knows sage grouse well believes they can be bred in captivity successfully. Young sage grouse learn about survival from their mothers. By contrast, the non-native pheasant captive-bred here is acknowledged to be a “put-and-take” hunting target. It hardly ever survives to breed on its own.

We can only hope that this sage grouse experiment will go well. If captive-bred chicks don’t thrive in the wild, there will be some well-fed coyotes, badgers and ravens.

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