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Translocating sage grouse wild, sleepless trip for volunteers

Sun., April 5, 2009

Volunteering to translocate sage grouse is no vacation.

“I’d forgotten what a hangover felt like, but now I remember,” said Richard Rivers, one of six Spokane chapter members of the Hunting and Fishing Conservation Coalition who drove to southeast Oregon last weekend.

After making the 500-mile drive, the volunteers were up all night with Oregon and Washington biologists to trap and process sage grouse that would be brought back to Washington for release in Lincoln County.

Others in the local contingent included Thom Woodruff, Doug Pineo, Drew Reinkin, Jeff Holmes, and Erica Bronson. The group also has done monitoring and habitat work in Lincoln County.

“We tried hard on the first night but didn’t get any birds,” he said.

The dearth of sage grouse was exacerbated when the pickup belonging to an Oregon biologist who was donating his effort broke down in the middle of nowhere beyond the burg of Plush, Ore.

“It was a 1994 Ford with about 170,000 miles on it,” he said. “Broke down at 11:30 p.m. a good 9 miles from the ranch we were based out of. We walked 3.8 miles back to a highway and lucked out. A vehicle with the other trapping crew came by and we got a ride 7 miles back to the ranch. Otherwise, I don’t think another car would have come by all night.

“I tried to sleep during the day in my pickup, but that didn’t work. I went back out the second night without much sleep in 36 hours, but we had much better luck.”

The groups would hike into the sage country wearing headlamps. One person wore a frame pack with a small, quiet Honda generator to power a bright spotlight.

“You have to do this with no moon, or the birds won’t hold,” Rivers said. “We were totally dependent on GPS to navigate.”

As they walked through the rugged lava rock and sagebrush, the biologist would sweep the spotlight looking for the shine of a sage grouse eye. Approaching the bird mesmerized by the light, a helper would drop a big salmon landing net with a special mesh. Then they would quickly subdue the bird by hand.

“You learn to pin the wings to their chest when you pick them up with your thumbs between the wings on the back,” Rivers said.

After hours of capturing, the groups processed the birds, which included taking blood samples and attaching tiny radio transmitters to their necks.

Pineo was the one trusted to stay awake driving with the first precious cargo of 24 birds. He took off at 9:30 a.m. to make the delivery as quickly as possible for release at Washington’s Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area.

“Took me just over 10 hours,” he said. “I did stop to eat some sardines on (crackers). By the time I finally got home and had a beer, I got to bed at 2 a.m.”

Pineo said he has logged about 50 hours of driving time in the past year to assist with the three sage grouse translocations to Lincoln County.

“I look forward to it being an historic effort,” he said.

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