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Last dance for North Dakota's sage grouse

Marmath, N.D.1 / 7
Sage grouse range2 / 7
A strutting male sage grouse puts on quite a show in May 2009 as it displays to attract a mate in southwest North Dakota. Sage grouse numbers have declined to the point where they soon could be listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. State Game and Fish Department counters this spring found only 31 males -- an all-time low. (Craig Bihrle, N.D. Game and Fish Department) 3 / 7
Sage grouse illustration4 / 7
Stan Kohn5 / 7
Aaron Robinson6 / 7
A sage grouse in southwest North Dakota sports a radio-collar in April 2005. Monitoring of the radio-collared birds has found that some of the sage grouse have died from the West Nile virus, a mosquito-borne disease that has become more prevalent since ranchers and the energy industry began building more dams to hold water. (Craig Bihrle, N.D. Game and Fish Department) 7 / 7

BOWMAN COUNTY, N.D. — Stan Kohn and I were laughing like new friends do when they’ve just discovered a common interest.

We were in his pickup at first light on an April morning.

The distant hills were outlined indistinctly against the morning sky. In front of us lay a broad swath of ground, tilting almost imperceptibly to the east, and falling into a wide swale before rising again.

There were sage grouse in the swale. Five of them.

This was a lek, a display ground the birds had used before. Kohn knew about it. He’s the upland game supervisor with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. That means grouse, pheasants, partridges and prairie chickens are his specialties.

He brought me to this a patch of ground between the Cedar Hills and Coyote Creek. That’s in Bowman County, just about as far from Grand Forks as you can get and still be in North Dakota.

Here we would see sage grouse.

Sage grouse are icons of the Great Plains.

These birds are tightly woven into Native American lore and tradition and closely linked to the history of European exploration and occupation of the Plains.

Native American dance steps imitate the movement of sage grouse across their strutting grounds.

So, sage grouse have an intimate connection with the region’s first people.

Meriwether Lewis gets credit for discovering the sage grouse, which he called “mountain cock.”

Elliott Coues, historian of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the leading ornithologist of the 18th century, declared, “The bird Lewis mentions is the sage grouse.”

Theodore Roosevelt saw sage grouse while he lived in Dakota Territory. He called them “cock of the plains.”

All together, the display is a wonder of nature — it’s easy to understand the inspiration they provided for Native American dancers.

Mixed reviews

There’s less general agreement about how tasty sage grouse might be. Lewis found “the flesh dark and only tolerable in point of flavor.”

He was speaking of birds killed in June, early in the season.

Roosevelt was more appreciative.

The birds “were feeding on grasshoppers at this time, and the flesh, especially of young birds, was as tender and well tasting as possible; whereas, when we again passed through the valley in September, we found the birds almost uneatable, being fairly bitter with sage.”

In contrast, Jerry Kobriger declares, “I really like ’em. The young of the year males are the best eating. They make excellent table fare.”

But he admits, “Old birds can really be tough.”

Kobriger has been counting grouse in North Dakota’s Badlands for more than 50 years. He retired as the Game and Fish Department’s upland game specialist a decade ago, but he still comes on the annual sage grouse count the department conducts.

Kohn, the man who succeeded him, is more circumspect about sage grouse as human food. “It’s an acquired taste,” he asserted.

He offered one recipe tip: Never add sage. The grouse have enough of that already.

Near collapse

Nobody’s cooking sage grouse in North Dakota these days, unless they imported the birds. The state closed its sage grouse hunting season in 2008.

Kobriger, Kohn and seven others from the Game and Fish Department were in the Badlands during the week of April 14 — the week of the full moon. This is when sage grouse dance most urgently. The Game and Fish crews visited leks in three counties. At each location, they counted dancing males — if they saw any.

Too often they didn’t.

North Dakota’s sage grouse population appears to have collapsed.

The counters found 31 males. That’s down from 50 last year, continuing a trend that began half a dozen years ago.

This year’s count is the lowest number ever recorded.

It’s down from nearly 300 displaying males in 2000 and 159 in 2007.

Consistent with the Game and Fish Department’s management plan, North Dakota’s hunting season on sage grouse was closed in 2008, when the annual count of dancing males fell below 100 birds.

The results of the count in Bowman, Slope and Golden Valley counties — the state’s three southwestern-most counties, all of them bordering Montana — left Game and Fish biologists disappointed, concerned, puzzled, frustrated, even a little bit angry.

What happened?

The answer is complicated, and there are several theories. Most likely, it’s a consequence of diminishing habitat, changes in habitat, disturbances in the breeding range, disease and the bird’s own specialization.

What happens next?

That answer is clearer. The grouse may be listed as an endangered species.

Listing could have far-reaching impacts on the ranchers and energy developers who drive southwestern North Dakota’s economy.

Possible causes

First, though, what happened?

Here is the scenario that Game and Fish Department officials agree upon. I heard it from Kobriger, Kohn and Aaron Robinson, who is the department’s upland game biologist in Dickinson, N.D.

To begin with, sage grouse are long-lived and slow to reproduce. They lay fewer eggs than sharp-tailed grouse, for example, and are less likely to nest again if their first effort is lost.

Second, sage grouse are “habitat obligates.” That means they depend on a certain type of habitat, in this case, expanses of a single species of sage brush, scientifically called Artemisia tridentata and commonly known as big sage.

Big sage is abundant and widespread.

Or at least it was.

There’s still a lot of big sage left in western North America. Tracts of several hundred acres aren’t hard to find in southwest North Dakota.

But the truly vast expanses of big sage that once dominated western landscapes have been fragmented, especially by energy development of many types — oil, gas and wind energy in North Dakota; these and strip mining in Montana and these and coal bed methane in Wyoming.

Plus, the roads and the dust and the noise that come with energy development.

In Bowman County, an energy boom in the early 2000s brought new oil and gas wells and a wind farm.

Roads were built where there had never been roads before.

One of the most extensive areas of big sage habitat became a waste disposal site.

Still, there was a lot of suitable habitat for sage grouse, and some habitat was improving.

Once, Bowman County was the state’s premier sheep-raising area, but sheep have given way to cattle. This should have been good for sage grouse. Sheep are indiscriminate grazers, often stripping most plant life from any area they enter. Cattle are more selective in what they eat, leaving some cover for grouse.

West Nile factor

But something else happened, something entirely unexpected.

Both ranchers and the oil industry built dams to retain water, and water attracted mosquitoes.

Mosquitoes — some of them — carry West Nile virus.

And West Nile is always fatal to sage grouse.

Game and Fish Department officials began finding radio-collared birds.

Dead birds.

Testing found they had succumbed to West Nile virus.

So, West Nile on top of habitat fragmentation created a kind of perfect storm. Sage grouse might have survived one, but the double whammy has reduced the population to the point that it might no longer be viable.

Such low numbers can lead to what biologist Robinson called “a genetic bottleneck” as in-breeding weakens individual birds and makes them more vulnerable to a wide variety of risks, including disturbance, disease and predation.

Unless …

Seeking birds

Game and Fish Department officials are considering a last-ditch effort. They want to bring birds from other areas to supplement and strengthen the North Dakota population.

Last year, they asked Montana officials to provide grouse; initially Montana agreed, but sage grouse counts have fallen there, too, and the state’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks withdrew its approval.

Now, North Dakota officials are talking with game managers in Wyoming. It’s a long shot, Robinson, who’s in charge of the project, concedes.

He points out, however, that North Dakota is asking for only about 30 birds — fewer birds than Wyoming hunters kill in a single weekend during hunting season.

Here’s Robinson’s argument:

“Let us try it. We’ll do it right,” he said. “Chances are it wouldn’t work. But at least we could say we’ve done everything in our power.”

Otherwise, he said, “We’d simply watch the species disappear.”

There’s resignation in his attitude, but there’s also anger. “If we had been thinking, we could have done something,” he said.

By “we,” he means state officials who approved rapid development, including the waste disposal pit, which many local residents opposed.

“Somebody’s going to answer,” Robinson said, and he thinks he knows who that will be.

“If the grouse are listed, someone’s going to be asking the governor why this happened.”

No listing — yet

So far, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has dodged a listing for sage grouse. Listing “is warranted but precluded,” the service has said. That means the sage grouse could be added to the endangered species list, but it hasn’t been because other species have a higher priority.

The very low counts in North Dakota, South Dakota and adjacent areas of Montana — the so-called “tri-state population” — may make listings more likely, though. The Fish and Wildlife Service expects to make a decision within 16 months, by September 2015.

Listing would require state wildlife officials to prepare plans and enforce measures to protect sage grouse. In Wyoming, state game officials already have acted to require buffer zones around energy developments, including oil wells.

The collapse in sage grouse populations in the tri-state area doesn’t necessarily mean listing, however. The Fish and Wildlife Service rejected petitions from conservationists who wanted the tri-state birds to be considered a distinct population. Farther west, sage grouse numbers are more stable, and so the species could survive even if it disappears from some areas.

Still, this year’s numbers reflect a rapid decline. The Fish and Wildlife Service has said that the breeding range of sage grouse has shrunk by 56 percent in the United States. Canadian Wildlife officials are struggling to save a remnant population in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

This has led to a sense of resignation among biologists who work with sage grouse.

On Thursday of count week, the crew gathered at a bar in Marmarth, N.D. It’s their tradition.

After a few beers at the end of a disappointing day on which only half a dozen grouse were found, one biologist said, “Maybe time is up for the sage grouse.

“Maybe this is the end for sage grouse in North Dakota.”

So, Robinson was asked: Is this the last dance for North Dakota’s sage grouse?

He wouldn’t go that far. “It the opening stanza,” he said. “We can hear the music, but we’ll be back next year to count again.” 

Mating dance inspires

Generations of Plainsmen have watched the sage grouse dance in spring and hunted them in the fall.

The consensus is that the dance, a mating display, is spectacular.

Sage grouse are big, heavy birds with long tails and broad wings — so that in flight they look a little like B-52s.

They’re cryptically colored, the better to blend into the muted tones of their environment.

Displaying grouse males, though, make themselves plenty obvious.

First, there’s the noise, made by inflating air sacs hanging below their beaks. The sound is very low pitched, a kind of a curtailed hoot that sounds like a pop.

It doesn’t seem as loud as the higher-pitched noise made by sharp-tailed grouse, which is more audible to the human ear.

Nevertheless, the sound of a sage grouse carries for a great distance, certainly more than a mile.

Up close, the sacs are prominent; when they’re inflated, a pale yellow membrane becomes visible.

The male grouse spread their tails, which are spiked with sharply pointed feathers dotted with white, and they strut across the lek dragging their wings. Every now and again, they pull the head back, then thrust it sharply forward.

And they make the noise.

This display is sometimes called dancing, sometimes called strutting. Either term is descriptive.

Females are more demur. They enter the lek and make their way among the displaying males. Copulation takes only a few seconds; once complete, the females do a little shake and move away.

The males follow.

The sage grouse dance begins before dawn, sometimes during the night when the moon is full. Activity drops off rapidly as the sun rises.