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Greater Sage-Grouse Movements and Habitat Use

Mike Yates and a Greater Sage-Grouse

Mike Yates and a Greater Sage-Grouse

In two separate Nevada studies, we tracked Greater Sage-Grouse to determine their year-round movements and habitat use. In the 2003 study, overall goals were not met due to then-current limitations of available satellite telemetry and premature battery failures. A 2008 -10 study used advanced technologies to fully address project needs.

Current information on Greater Sage-Grouse from the USFWS website in January 2012:

“The Greater Sage-Grouse is a large, rounded-winged, ground-dwelling bird, up to 30 inches long and two feet tall, weighing from two to seven pounds.  It has a long, pointed tail with legs feathered to the base of the toes. Females are a mottled brown, black, and white. Males are larger and have a large white ruff around their neck and bright yellow air sacks on their breasts, which they inflate during their mating display.  The birds are found at elevations ranging from 4,000 to over 9,000 feet and are highly dependent on sagebrush for cover and food.

Currently, Greater Sage-Grouse are found in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, eastern California, Nevada, Utah, western Colorado, South Dakota and Wyoming and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan and occupy approximately 56 percent of their historical range.

After a thorough analysis of the best available scientific information, the Fish and Wildlife Service has concluded that the Greater Sage-Grouse warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act. However, the Service has determined that proposing the species for protection is precluded by the need to take action on other species facing more immediate and severe extinction threats.

As a result, the Greater Sage-Grouse will be placed on the list of species that are candidates for Endangered Species Act Protection. The Service will review the status of the species annually, as it does with all candidate species, and will propose the species for protection when funding and workload priorities for other listing actions allow.

Evidence suggests that habitat fragmentation and destruction across much of the species’ range has contributed to significant population declines over the past century. If current trends persist, many local populations may disappear in the next several decades, with the remaining fragmented population vulnerable to extinction.

However, the sage grouse population as a whole remains large enough and is distributed across such a large portion of the western United States that the needs of other species facing more immediate and severe threat of extinction must take priority.”

Raptor Research Center 2003 Study, Elko County, Nevada

The long-term decline of sage grouse populations throughout North America has increased the potential for a petition to list sage grouse as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Such a listing would have the potential to affect most public land users. Nevada Governor Kenny C. Guinn recognized that a listing of sage grouse as an endangered species would have a significant impact on Nevada. Therefore, in August, 2000,  he assembled diverse interested parties to develop a statewide sage grouse conservation strategy. This statewide strategy calls for the development of local conservation plans utilizing current sage grouse science, emphasizing local involvement and decision-making.

In 2000, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies finalized an update of the Guidelines for Management of Sage Grouse Populations and Habitats first issued in 1977. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), US Forest Service, and US Fish and Wildlife Service signed a memorandum of agreement to consider these guidelines in their respective planning efforts. In Nevada, the BLM has recognized that generally lower moisture regimes prevail throughout the majority of Nevada’s sagebrush ecosystem. Therefore, BLM developed a set of sage grouse management guidelines adapted to Nevada to provide interim guidance to BLM field managers without restricting options currently being explored for local sage grouse conservation planning.

A local conservation plan is being developed for Elko County. This draft plan currently proposes a conservation strategy that includes an evaluation of current risk factors and prioritization of needed management changes at the watershed level. Implementation of land treatments and management changes would be identified through watershed analysis and adaptive management techniques.

The BLM completed an evaluation of resource conditions for the Hubbard Vineyard Allotment in northeastern Elko County, NV. The Hubbard Vineyard allotment provides critical seasonal habitat for sage grouse and historic seasonal habitat for Columbia Sharp-tailed Grouse. The Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW), through a study agreement with Idaho State University (ISU), began conducting a Sharp-tailed Grouse re-establishment study in 1999. This study uses conventional VHF telemetry to track Sharp-tailed Grouse movements following their re-introduction into the Hubbard Vineyard Allotment study area.

In order to ensure significant progress toward attainment of resource objectives within the Hubbard Vineyard Allotment, the BLM has implemented an adaptive management approach, utilizing the principles of holistic management to involve the interested public in the decision making process. Critical sage grouse and Sharp-tailed Grouse nesting habitat within the Hubbard Vineyard allotment occurs within three separate pastures. A grazing system has been designed that would allow for grazing in each of the pastures during the critical nesting season one year out of three. Each pasture would be rested two years out of three. The grazing system has been designed to improve degraded riparian habitat conditions within the three pastures, ultimately improving summer and late brood-rearing habitat for sage grouse. The sage grouse management guidelines of Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies describe the critical need for residual nesting cover to ensure nesting success. Therefore, concern has been raised regarding the potential effects the proposed grazing system might have on nesting sage grouse and Sharp-tailed Grouse.

Given the plan for adaptive management of sage grouse and specifically the concern for management of critical nesting habitat, the Raptor Research Center partnered in a study with NDOW, ISU, BLM and USGS. Funded by the latter two organizations, the study addresses the following objectives:

  1. Locate critical nesting areas within the Hubbard Vineyard Allotment.
  2. Describe sage grouse nesting habitat use in relation to grazed and ungrazed pastures.
  3. Identify selected habitat conditions within occupied nesting areas in relation to sage grouse management guidelines, life history, and habitat requirements.
  4. Define seasonal sage grouse movements and critical habitat areas to assist in the holistic management process and adaptive grazing management within the Hubbard Vineyard Allotment.
  5. Evaluate satellite telemetry technology against conventional radio telemetry and evaluate the effectiveness of this technology in tracking sage grouse annual movements.
  6. Apply this information to habitat evaluations and adaptive management strategies elsewhere in Elko County.

Late in March 2003, we captured eight adult female sage grouse in the Hubbard Vineyard Allotment at night, using spotlights and hand nets. Eight were outfitted with ~20 gram collar-mounted Platform Transmitter Terminals (PTTs) that are received by the Argos Satellite System. Five of those eight were also instrumented with ~2 gram VHF transmitters; three were glued to the PTT and two were tail-mounted.Additional female grouse were marked with VHF transmitters only, and ISU researchers are tracking all VHF units. Satellite location estimates will be gathered for ~one year, revealing habitat and locales used during nesting and brood rearing, along with timing and extent of seasonal movements. Independent VHF locations of birds carrying both types of transmitters will be compared with satellite location estimates to assess accuracy of the latter.

PTT batteries did not achieve projected longevity. In addition, Argos location estimates proved suitable for representing movements at landscape scale but not for representing use of adjacent allotments at a fine scale. This is a representative map of movements by one subject.

Map of Sage Grouse Movements

Acquisition of databases compiled by the BLM (WY, OR) in contemporary projects allowed us to evaluate the relative merits of PTTs fielded during the three studies and arrive at recommendations for future field efforts.

Raptor Research Center 2008-10 Study in Eastern Nevada

In 2008, the RRC studied fine-scale use by Greater Sage-Grouse of a proposed wind power project area in eastern Nevada. In our 2003 study only battery powered PTTs were available, and even the limited transmission hours projected were not achieved due to premature battery failures. By 2008, solar-powered transmitters were available and we deployed those via individually-fitted teflon ribbon backpack. We used ~20g units that provided Doppler-derived location estimates (as in 2003) and also ~30g units that recorded very precise GPS locations and relayed those to us via transmissions to Argos satellites. We also deployed and tracked VHF collars.

As a result, we were able to fully document use of the study site through deployment and tracking of 34 sentinel sage grouse. Because data are proprietary we cannot currently disclose the project location or detailed results, but provide here an example of the GPS locations we received from a single hen over a period of almost a year. We have removed identifying map layers but included the 1,339 locations that documented her movements in great detail during that period.

Chart showing an example of the GPS locations received from a single hen over a period of almost a year