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ND makes desperate attempt to keep sage grouse in state

A male sage grouse gets its first look at its new home Monday after being trapped in Wyoming, flown to North Dakota and released in a State Game and Fish Department project to try to save the bird from completely disappearing from some of its native ground. Submitted photo by North Dakota Game and Fish Department1 / 3
A male sage grouse gets its first look at its new home Monday after being trapped in Wyoming, flown to North Dakota and released in a State Game and Fish Department project to try to save the bird from completely disappearing from some of its native ground. Lauren Donovan / Bismarck Tribune 2 / 3
Jaden Honeyman, a North Dakota Game and Fish Department biologist, helps transfer sage grouse trapped in Wyoming from the transport plane to a vehicle headed toward a release site in remote Bowman County. Submitted photo by North Dakota Game and Fish Department3 / 3

BISMARCK—Sage grouse are being airlifted into southwestern North Dakota with high hopes that this native bird can be saved here.

The operation airlift started last week, and it may be another week until the North Dakota Game and Fish Department crew is able to capture enough wild birds in Wyoming to meet its goal of 40 females and 20 males.

The once plentiful bird has declined to near extinction in this state and the ongoing project to transplant them and hopefully reinvigorate the population has an air of desperation.

"We're at the end of our rope here, and we're doing whatever we can to keep the population from being extirpated," said upland game management supervisor Aaron Robinson. "Extirpated" is another word for disappeared or wiped out.

No question, the numbers here are bleak: There are maybe 10 males, where once 400 strutted and danced for the hens in the clay pan flats and big sagebrush country in southwestern Bowman County, edging up into Slope County, Robinson said.

West Nile is one killer over time but so is the lost big sagebrush habitat, fragmented by the development of oil and gas wells.

Robinson is catching some shuteye when he can and is up all night with the crew, searching for and spotlighting grouse on a lek, or dancing grounds, in southern Wyoming near Rawlins. It's spring and the birds are congregating for the annual mating ritual, though the females are for some reason hanging back this year.

"There are a lot of challenges, the weather and our exhaustion. But the big issue is the females — they're not around the lek and they're difficult to find," he said. "We're hoping they come in next week, but we're down here until we get it done."

As of late Tuesday, the crew of six had captured 14 males and 10 females. More males will be trapped than transported because only one in three has a viable sperm count that's required to inseminate the females. The idea is that brooding hens will be more likely to nest and settle into their new home.

When enough birds are ready to go, they're individually boxed, flown in and quietly released on a known lek on remote Bureau of Land Management land in Bowman County. The quick flight in a Cessna 182 is less traumatic to the birds than a long, nine-hour drive.

"It takes a lot of effort. We find the birds by their eye-shine and, once we find them, we have to be quick. Last night, I found three hens that I tried to capture, but two flushed and I was able to catch one," Robinson said.

Besides the insemination process, the sage grouse are weighed and radio-collared. A graduate student will spend his summer monitoring the new arrivals to see if they adapt, reproduce, if chicks survive and if the birds stick around.

"Whether this works is a huge unknown. Reestablishing a population takes years and years, and there is a high likelihood that it won't work," Robinson said.

In a normal population, half of all sage grouse die every year so population growth is a long-term proposition.

"We have to give this some time so any offspring can start influencing the population," Robinson said.

Jeb Williams, wildlife chief, said the department plans to repeat the operation again next spring and then take a "wait and see" approach.

"If this is helping enough, it may be something longer. Our goal is to reverse the declining population with the expectation that we will never have a large population, but, hopefully, we'll see stability or maybe an increase," he said.

This is operation airlift is a first for North Dakota, though other states have transplanted sage grouse.

The sage grouse solution is a deeply cooperative one among Western states which joined an initiative to rebuild sage grouse numbers to prevent it from being listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Ranchers and other landowners have been involved in habitat programs to improve conditions and, in 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found the bird does not face extinction across its 173 million-acre range and withdrew it as a candidate species under the Endangered Species Act.

That was good news for the bird and for ranchers, who wanted to be proactive in helping the birds survive rather than reactive to federal restrictions once the birds were listed, Williams said.

"We appreciate the work that landowners have done," he said. "Nobody wants to see this bird be listed."

Meantime, a very fragile group of newcomers is settling into one of the last best areas of big sagebrush habitat in North Dakota. It's possible the very future of the bird in North Dakota rests with them, and Williams hopes they don't follow some strong internal urge to call it quits and head back toward home.

"We'd appreciate it if they stayed," he said.

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