The Gambolings Of Washington’s Sage Grouse

For Washington wingshooters, there are three brands of grice of import, and this time of year, ruffeds, blues and spruces are busy on their drumming logs, booming away in hopes of wooing grouse lasses.

Later this year, we will take to the firs, pines, hemlocks and cottonwood-bottom haunts in search of up to three of each kind — a new regulation passed earlier this month by the Fish & Wildlife Commission — as part of the daily limit of four.

Good memories and meals will be made.

As it turns out, though, Washington is home to a few more members of the grouse family, none of which have been hunted in ages, but are still of interest.

Well, at least to outdoor reporters who get their geek on over our region’s wandering wildlife.

I’ve written about the Northwest’s footloose bighorn sheep, mountain goats, elk, deer, wolves, pronghorns and moose over the years, so I was pretty stoked when WDFW recently detailed the long-distance gamboling of two of the state’s rare sage grouse.

One made a 100-plus-mile-long loop of the northern Columbia Basin in February and March; the other appears to have gone on a mission to survey every township between Reardan, Lind and Grand Coulee.

Who knew grouse moved so much?!?

AS THEIR NAME IMPLIES, THESE LARGEST members of the grouse family — during the breeding season, males can weigh as much as 6 to 7 pounds, twice as much as any wily old ridgetop hooter you might bag — like sagebrush country, though there’s not as much as there once was.

It’s become fragmented as the region was plowed and irrigated.

However, there are still patches of habitat where sages are holding on. The two largest tracts are the Army’s Yakima Training Center and the high lonesome that is Douglas County.

The latter region hosts the most birds, somewhere around 800 at last check.

And these days they’ve got some new neighbors coming over to say howdy.

Since 2008, WDFW has been working with federal, state, university, hunter, tribal and other partners and individuals — including new Fish & Wildlife Commissioner and 2010 agency volunteer of the year Kim Thorburn — on a reintroduction project in central Lincoln County.

Sages were extirpated there as recently as 1987, but around 200 birds originally from Southern Oregon have been set free in the Swanson Lakes area.

Some of those have been outfitted with telemetry, and the recent travels of two males known as 2036 and 2050 is “providing amazing insight into the connectivity between” populations in Lincoln and Douglas Counties, according to the agency.

The news comes as an update to WDFW’s “Lincoln County Prairie Grouse Project,” which also monitors sharptailed grouse, and was included in the Wildlife Program’s March 30 weekly report.

A map based on a GPS device strapped to 2036 shows it making like a NASA probe headed for the far corners of the galaxy, and then returning home with the data.

Starting out with a little loop around its home base in central Lincoln County for momentum, the bird slingshots around the southern end of Banks Lake, then flies northwest to the country north of Grimes Lake in Douglas County before Yeager Rock hurls it back across the top of Banks and Grant County with a stay at Steamboat Rock before returning to Lincoln County near Wilbur as of late March.

During its seven-week journey, GPS readings show check-ins at two Douglas County leks.

A lek — the word comes from Sweden, the land of the huge black-and-green-feathered capercaillie — is where the males dance in hopes of attracting the attention of females. Wildlife biologists ask that the public not disturb the sensitive sites.

A WDFW MAP AND PHOTO (BELOW) SHOW THE SAGE GROUSE KNOWN AS 2036 AND HIS TRAVELS THIS PAST FEBRUARY AND MARCH. (WDFW)
A WDFW MAP AND PHOTO (BELOW) SHOW THE SAGE GROUSE KNOWN AS 2036 AND HIS TRAVELS THIS PAST FEBRUARY AND MARCH. (WDFW)

sage 2

Interestingly, 2036 flew almost the exact same route west that an analysis from the Washington Wildlife Habitat Connectivity Group found to be the “least-cost path” between sage grouse habitats in Lincoln and Douglas Counties, a distance that was measured as 80 kilometers, or 50 miles.

Its journey also marks the first time WDFW could follow one of the prairie grouse’s peregrinations pretty regularly, according to agency grouse guru Mike Schroeder, whom I reached yesterday while he was on annual leave doing — what else? — spruce grouse work in Alberta.

And it’s the second that biologists know for sure has made it into Douglas County.

The other got to the Jameson Lake area and stayed; two others died in route, Schroeder says.

Another, the GPS-collared male 2050, did some huge crazy loops around Wilbur, Ritzville and Harrington, and had passed through Electric City on its way to the Douglas County leks south of Lake Rufus Woods as of late March.

“Movement is a really important part of these animals’ life history,” notes Schroeder.

The birds remind him of elk in that way, and he explains that dispersal helps them repopulate areas where local bands have died out or been scattered by, say, wildfire — of which there have been several large ones in this country in recent years — and the genetic exchange helps keeps flocks strong.

In their sex lives, sages are the polar opposites of their cousins from up in the Krumholz, white-tailed ptarmigan, which are monogamous, Schroeder says.

But the large-scale movements also pose management challenges. In the 1990s, he says that one sage hen covered 50 miles between its winter and nesting grounds on Badger Mountain and near Grand Coulee; some in Montana make 200-mile trips.

There’s also a bit of a mystery in grouse 2036’s return to Lincoln County.

If Douglas County has more hens and habitat than anywhere else in the state, why did he loop on back?

Hard to say, but Schroeder hypothesizes it might have come down to size.

“The birds from Oregon are lighter. This guy would have been 1 pound lighter than a Washington male,” he says.

Perhaps it ended up being a wallflower on the dance floors as males 15 percent bigger strutted their stuff.

“Maybe that was a little disconcerting?” Schroeder wonders.

Another puzzler: Dave Volsen, WDFW district wildlife biologist, says it absolutely boggles his mind how a bird that originally came from the Beaver State could have found the other grouse way over in Douglas County.

“It’s not like they fly at 30,000 feet,” he mused.

WITH THE U.S. FISH & WILDLIFE SERVICE finding that an ESA listing for the West’s sage grouse is warranted but precluded due to higher priorities though still possibly coming later this year, there’s been a titanic effort regionwide to head it off.

It involves what’s being termed an “unprecedented” partnership and an “epic collaboration” between U.S. government agencies and ranchers — there’s even a new phrase, “what’s good for the bird is good for the herd,” which a Harney County cattleman came up with.

Literally hundreds of millions of dollars has been spent on habitat projects such as the eradication of invasive plants — those juniper beams from Oregon at your local lumber store — on over 400,000 acres, removal or marking of barbed-wire fences in key areas, and more.

The effort is paying off.

Earlier this week, USFWS announced that it would not list sages straddling the California-Nevada border after work there to reduce threats to the birds and protect their sage-steppe habitat.

Who knows what will happen in Washington, where both sage and sharptailed grouse are listed as threatened species under state ESA protections.

Our days of hunting them are fading into history (a copy of the 1905 game laws show the daily limit back then was up to 10), but if this work to bolster the populations and strengthen the habitat works, who knows …

In the meanwhile, what Washington’s prairie grouse represent is important to some critters we can chase.

A recent study in Wyoming found that conservation efforts aimed at sage grouse had a doubling effect for mule deer habitat.

“When we’re out there in those better sage grouse areas, those are pretty good for Huns, chukars and pheasant,” says Schroeder.

In the beautiful grassy highlands of the Chesaw Wildlife Area, sharptails might occupy one ridge, dusky blues the other and ruffies hang out in the draw between them, he adds.

Here’s a fact you might not know: Schroeder says that when you include those three species with spruces, sooty blues, white-tailed ptarmigan and the odd sage here and there, Okanogan County has a whopping seven kinds of grouse.

“No county in the U.S. has more — and four are huntable,” he says.

One of the aims of last year’s partial acquisition of the Grand Coulee Ranch just across the Columbia is to provide a bridge for the seasonal migration of Douglas County sage grouse north. While another $4 million is available in the state House Capital Budget to continue the purchase, none was earmarked in the Senate’s version.

Sage grouse have a long way to go, but their peregrinations and life history are far more fascinating than I ever thought possible when that map of ol’ 2036’s wanderings caught my eye. Indeed, Washington actually has more than just three species of grice of import.

To learn more about the grouse, the threats to them and the work being done publicly and privately to help them out, check out WFDW‘s and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service‘s web pages on the species.

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