May 18, 2010 in Idaho

Feds funding habitat for sage grouse

Program will secure land in Douglas County
By The Spokesman-Review
File Associated Press photo

The sage grouse, shown here, is a threatened species in the state of Washington. Farmers and ranchers in Douglas County are being offered compensation to help protect the birds’ habitat.
(Full-size photo)

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Volunteer honored for helping bird

 Kim Thorburn, a retired physician from Spokane, has been named Volunteer of the Year by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for her efforts to help bring sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse back to Lincoln County.

 Thorburn, who has spent the past year radio-tracking birds relocated to the county by state biologists, was recognized at a ceremony Thursday.

 “Kim Thorburn’s dedication to this project has helped us keep track of these birds and given us a better understanding of their home range,” said WDFW Director Phil Anderson. “She’s a prime example of the important contribution citizen volunteers make to this department and to this state’s fish and wildlife resources.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will pay farmers and ranchers to protect 38,000 acres of sage grouse habitat in Douglas County, which has one of the nation’s last stable populations of the chicken-like birds.

Sage grouse are known for their colorful courtship dances. The males strut around breeding grounds, puffing up air sacks on their chests to attract females.

“They’re a charismatic species,” said Don Larsen, private lands coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, noting that sage grouse rituals inspired Native American dances. “They’re highly visible and culturally significant.”

About 600 to 700 sage grouse are believed to live in Douglas County, in the center of the state. The birds are a threatened species in Washington state and are candidates for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

State biologists worked with USDA officials to get the funds for sage grouse habitat through the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement program. The program pays landowners to establish or maintain wildlife habitat through 15-year contracts.

Sage grouse need “shrub-steppe” habitat for survival, incorporating tall grasses, sagebrush and native broadleaf plants, Larsen said. Grasses conceal nests from predators, while sagebrush provides food at certain times of the year. Sage grouse chicks get protein from eating bugs on broadleaf plants.

Over the years, Douglas County’s sage grouse population has benefited from land enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers not to cultivate highly erodible acreage. But contracts on 65,000 acres of CRP land have been expiring over the past two years. Some documented sage grouse nesting areas have gone back into production, Larsen said.

The new funding will help protect important nesting and feeding areas. In addition to sage grouse, “a lot of other species depend on that habitat,” Larsen said.

Sharp-tail grouse, jackrabbits, deer and other songbirds also rely on shrub-steppe habitat.

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