Mike Schroeder, of Bridgeport, Wash., is in a fowl mood this month. The Washington Fish and Wildlife Department biologist wakes each day well before sunrise to monitor sage grouse he has trapped and fitted with radio transmitters.
He’s doing research that could help keep the once-abundant native species from becoming endangered.
Washington biologists have combed the state to find about 20 permanent sage grouse mating grounds - known as leks. In March and April, the males show up at these leks well before sunrise to fan their tails, strut and bicker in an attempt to win the mating favors of females that peck coyly through the show.
Although 15 to 40 sage grouse might be on a given lek each day, Schroeder said there’s not enough known about the birds to make a good population estimate for the state.
“We don’t know what percentage of the males or females show up at the leks,” he said.
Most of the leks are in Douglas, Okanogan, Grant, Yakima and Kittitas counties, Schroeder said. Traditional leks in other areas, including Lincoln County, have been abandoned.
Sage grouse, and their smaller cousins, the sharptails, were Washington’s abundant native upland bird species near the turn of the century.
Old-timers from Mansfield, Wash., talk of a bounty of sage grouse, Schroeder said.
“Now the birds are long gone.”
Human encroachment has been a factor, but it’s not clear what the other factors are, he said.
“That’s what we’re trying to find out.”
Throughout the rest of the year, Schroeder will be following 50 sage grouse which he trapped and fitted with tiny radio transmitter collars before releasing them.
When the breeding season is over, however, he won’t necessarily have to get up at 4 a.m.
He’s been following some of the birds for two years.
So far, he’s learned that females tend to nest in the same area each year, even though they might disperse 15 miles from the breeding grounds to raise their broods.
Meanwhile, the males might look silly strutting on the leks well into April after the females have all been bred and are sitting on nests.
“Every now and then it pays off,” Schroeder said. “A nest will be destroyed by a predator, and the female will come back to the lek to breed again and produce a second nest of eggs.”
Schroeder is encouraged by the high number of yearling grouse this year, indicating good nest production last year.
However, he’s concerned about political rumblings that might bring the 10-year-old Conservation Reserve Program to an end.
“We know that CRP cover is important to sage grouse,” he said. “We don’t know how important, but we know it provides a lot more cover than plowed wheat fields.”