More prairie grouse released in Lincoln County

Mike Finch of the Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area removes a male sage grouse from a cardboard box to place it in a holding pen for release in Lincoln County before sunrise during last year’s releases. (Rich Landers)
Mike Finch of the Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area removes a male sage grouse from a cardboard box to place it in a holding pen for release in Lincoln County before sunrise during last year’s releases. (Rich Landers)

Washington’s beleaguered prairie grouse populations recently got a boost of 89 birds from Idaho and Oregon.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has released a total of 139 sharp-tailed grouse since 2005 and 107 sage grouse since 2008 around the Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area south of Creston for reintroduction.

The latest releases started March 22 and concluded last weekend for a total of 38 sage grouse that had been trapped from wild flocks in Oregon, and 51 sharptails from Idaho.

Some of the imported birds seemed acclimated as they got into the swing of the spring mating season.

“One of our trackers saw three male sage grouse strutting,” said Mike Finch, Swanson Lakes assistant manager.

No nesting has been documented yet among the reintroduced sage grouse, but sharptails have succeeded, biologists say.

The U.S Bureau of Land management and Washington State University are funding researchers to help monitor the birds, which are fitted with radio transmitters before they’re released.

Transmitters are still functioning on 14 sharptails and 11 sage grouse released in previous years.

The greater sage grouse native to Northwest states is the largest North American grouse species.

Settlers with plows and livestock and liberal hunting seasons raised havoc with the once-abundant flocks of sage grouse as well as their smaller cousins, the sharptails, starting in the 1800s.

By the early 1900s, sage grouse had been extirpated from Spokane, Columbia and Walla Walla counties and perhaps others.

Continued land changes from the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project and other development were dooming the birds regardless of hunting. Studies show the remaining sage grouse declined 62 percent from 1970 to 2003.

A 2008 survey indicated the sage grouse had declined to 640 birds in the state’s two remaining strongholds. About 450 of the birds were in Douglas and Grant counties while about 190 were on the U.S Army’s Yakima Training Center.

The current statewide sage grouse population estimate is more than 700 birds. Meantime, biologists are making a stab at restoring sage grouse to Lincoln County.

BLM land acquisitions in the past 20 years combined with the Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area provide a contiguous 53,000 acres of shrub-steppe land that can be managed with sage and sharptail grouse in mind.

Fall releases of sage grouse in 2008 were sobering occasions. Most of the grouse were killed by predators.

Biologists went to spring releases and modified their tactics.

Also, the agency encouraged Washington master hunters to come into the area during winter and shoot coyotes, although the success rate was low.

“We also trapped, banded and relocated six great horned owls from November to February before stopping,” Finch said. “They were taking a toll.”

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Rich Landers

Rich Landers

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