Considering what sage grouse have suffered in the past 200 years, the most recent ordeal was a joyride.
The indignity lasted only about 26 hours.
Netted on a moonless night March 27 in the glare of a hand-held spotlight in southeastern Oregon, 24 sage grouse were weighed, measured, blood-tested, checked for parasites, collared with tiny radio transmitters and placed in individual cardboard boxes by Oregon and Washington biologists assisted by a group of Spokane volunteers.
While four helpers stayed behind for another night of trapping, Doug Pineo, who’d been up all night, immediately embarked on the 11-hour drive to deliver the birds from sage range where they are abundant to a new home where they are little more than a memory.
At 3:30 a.m. March 28, Washington Fish and Wildlife Department staffers were inventorying the grouse in the back of the pickup south of Creston. They recorded the radio frequency on each bird’s transmitter.
Most of the birds were calm as Mike Finch and Todd Baarstad of the Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area, and Howard Ferguson, the agency’s district wildlife biologist, navigated by GPS off-road into the rangeland and parked.
But every now and then a box would jump and rattle, as though huge popcorn kernels were being heated inside.
A box in each hand, the men shuttled the birds by foot to a large box pen. They could tell the sex of the bird they were carrying without looking at the mark on the box. Each female weighed about 3 pounds, males about 6.
The greater sage grouse native to Northwest states is the largest North American grouse species.
Headlamps helped the men navigate about 150 yards each way in the blackness through the shoulder-high sagebrush.
A savannah sparrow bolted in Ferguson’s light beam, giving away its perfectly camouflaged nest of eggs.
“It’s that time of year in sage country,” he said, even though snow patches still lingered on the north sides of draws, and a blizzard was forecast for the next day.
Each sage grouse was carefully removed from its box. The birds lightened their loads on the biologists hands and were ready to fly, but they were placed in the large pen, where they could get their bearings for an hour before daylight and rehydrate by pecking at cantaloupe slices.
Finch retreated to the pickup and raised the antennae for a radio tracking devise. A popping sound indicated a grouse that had been released in 2008 was nearby.
“It’s fascinating,” said Finch, who was raised on a nearby farm. “This was a lek (mating ground) years ago, before the grouse disappeared. The birds brought here from Oregon last year didn’t know that, but there’s something that draws them to this spot.”
At least two females and a male released last year were in the vicinity to welcome the new arrivals to Lincoln County. Some transmitters were defective, so there could have been more.
A half-hour before sunrise, the men walked quietly back to the pen. Baarstad slowly pulled on ropes from 50 feet away to slowly open the sliding doors. The birds walked out, stretching their necks and scoping out the new digs before flushing – one, two or three at a time – to melt into the sagebrush.
That was just the beginning. With the help of the U. S. Bureau of Land Management, Washington State University and more volunteers, the birds will be radio tracked through the year.
Decades of abuse were inflicted to extirpate sage grouse from most of their range in Washington, and it will take years of effort to bring them back to sustainable numbers.
Meriwether Lewis reported sage grouse “in great abundance” in 1806 as his expedition passed through the mouth of the Snake River and areas of present-day Benton and Klickitat counties.
But settlers with plows and livestock and liberal hunting seasons raised havoc with the flocks.
As early as 1860, sage grouse had declined and were rarely seen in some areas that formerly contained numerous birds, according to research cited in Washington’s sage grouse recovery plan.
In 1897, the sage grouse hunting season ran Aug. 15-Dec. 1 with a bag limit of 10 birds a day.
By the early 1900s, sage grouse had been extirpated from Spokane, Columbia, and Walla Walla counties and perhaps others.
In 1923, sage-grouse hunting was closed statewide.
By 1950, grouse numbers had improved somewhat and limited hunting was allowed again.
But the continued land changes from the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project and other development was dooming the birds regardless of hunting. Studies show the remaining birds declined 62 percent from 1970 to 2003.
The invasion of cheatgrass and other noxious weeds had an impact, as well as fires that wiped out sage lands in areas such as the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
Washington’s last limited hunting seasons for sage grouse ended in 1988.
The sage-grouse was listed as a threatened species by the state of Washington in 1998. Down from what may have been a population of tens of thousands, sage grouse were found on only 8 percent of their historical range in the state.
By 2004, Washington’s breeding population was estimated at slightly more than 1,000 birds, concentrated mostly in two areas:
•Douglas and Grant counties with about 625 sage grouse riding the coattails of private lands enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program.
•The U.S. Army’s Yakima Training Center with about 390 birds.
Despite habitat improvements and translocation of birds to bolster genetic diversity, a 2008 survey indicated the grouse in these two havens had continued to decline to 450 birds in Douglas-Grant counties and 190 at the training center.
The current statewide sage grouse population estimate, including recent arrivals, is 670 birds.
“These grouse are cyclical, and we hope that’s what accounts for the recent drop,” said Derek Stinson, the Fish and Wildlife Department’s endangered species biologist. He noted that the past two years of hard winters and wet springs have been difficult on virtually all of the region’s game birds, including pheasants and quail.
Meantime, biologists are making a stab at restoring sage grouse to Lincoln County.
“Recent BLM land acquisitions combined with our Swanson Lakes area gives one chunk of more than 53,000 acres of shrub-steppe land that can be managed with sage grouse in mind,” Stinson said, noting that sharp-tailed grouse also are being reintroduced to the area, with up to 30 scheduled for release this week.
The land has changed considerably in the three decades since sage grouse strutted and mated on several leks south of U.S. Highway 2.
Climate change as well as deep-well irrigation have drained the potholes that dotted the scablands.
“Waterfowl has been the obvious loser,” Baarstad said. “But we’ve also lost the water and the woody hawthorn patches that other wildlife need.”
Some of the sage grouse released last fall were attracted to a creek lined with cottonwoods rather than staying out in the open sage country.
“They were quickly nailed by great horned owls,” said Finch.
“We lost about 50 percent of the birds within two weeks,” Stinson said, noting that a fall migration of goshawks didn’t help matters. “We probably won’t do any more fall releases.”
A total of 28 sage grouse – 15 males and 13 females – were turned loose March 28 and 29, bringing the number of birds released at Swanson Lakes in the past year to 69.
“All the birds released last weekend survived the first day and they were getting together with the birds there from last year’s release, including one that had been all the way over by Odessa last year,” Finch said later in the week.
“I have a good feeling about this site.”