Gros Ventre sage grouse rescue rejected by G&F

JACKSON — The Wyoming Game and Fish Department has again turned down local biologists’ proposal to add birds to a tiny, isolated sage grouse population that dwells up the Gros Ventre River basin in order to avert its total collapse.

The idea of augmenting the Gros Ventre’s resident grouse, last censused with just two male birds remaining, was born from a local working group that helps oversee Jackson Hole’s sage grouse. Plans to add adult hens with their broods were in motion ahead of summer 2020, but the statewide Sage Grouse Implementation Team’s adaptive management working group put the translocation project on hold. Planning to instead take action in 2021, the local group geared up for the grouse import, purchasing telemetry equipment so it could track the success of the translocated birds.

Last Friday, the working group received word that the project isn’t happening again this year.

“Please be aware this decision was not made lightly by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department,” Game and Fish sage grouse biologist Leslie Schreiber wrote the working group in an email.

Game and Fish also compiled and shared a 51-page report about the translocation proposal, though that document does not explicitly reveal the agency’s rationale for not authorizing the addition of outside sage grouse, which would have come from the Wyoming Range foothills south of Big Piney.

Schreiber declined an interview for story, reasoning that she hadn’t yet had the opportunity to meet with the working group and explain the decision. That virtual meeting takes place Thursday afternoon.

Until then, members of the grouse group are left to guess why their preparations to translocate grouse are for naught, at least this year.

“I don’t know why they decided they’re not going to proceed with it,” Game and Fish retiree and working group member Joe Bohne said. “I guess we’ll find out.”

Bohne heard a theory that the state wasn’t keen on augmenting struggling sage grouse populations because it could create a precedent that could be exploited by oil and gas companies, whose drilling and roadbuilding tend to cause bird numbers to tank.

“But that was just speculation,” Bohne said, “that they don’t want to go down that road because industry would seize on it as another silver bullet.”

Human intrusions into sage grouses’ sagebrush-steppe habitat has caused the species to lose more than half its historic range and driven numbers down to below 500,000 birds left in the world.

It’s not totally clear what’s caused the decline up the Gros Ventre. The valley’s population first shows up in the recordbooks in the 1930s and ‘40s, when sage grouse remains were detected in coyote scat by Olaus Murie during a bighorn sheep research project. But data on bird numbers wasn’t gathered until the 1980s, when former Game and Fish biologist Garvice Roby regularly counted dozens of birds during the spring mating season that causes males to gather and strut on leks.

Those counts have been in a freefall more recently.

“The population has dwindled from 25 males to just a couple in the course of 10 years,” Bohne said, “unless there’s a lek that we don’t know about.”

Although just two grouse were tallied during the formal 2020 survey, there was a report of 18 sage grouse seen up the Gros Ventre earlier in the year.

The sage grouse working group’s 2021 survey of the Gros Ventre lek, located in the Breakneck Flats areas, will take place this spring, typically in April.