Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Surveying Sage-Grouse with Jack and Meg

I spent the evening in the mountains with Jack, my grouse biologist friend, and his hunting dog Meg. I took Meg’s spot in the front seat of Jack’s pickup and she was none too happy about it.

As we were driving along near our destination, Jack said, “is that a rock or a grouse?” Sure enough it was a big hen sitting along the edge of a green meadow near a bank of sagebrush. As Meg flushed her, a few more rose. A dozen total birds were in the same vicinity. Wow, what luck! Never having flushed a bird before, it was pretty exciting for me. I am not a hunter; have never seen a dog “on point.”

We continued the evening by wandering around on foot behind Meg for a couple of miles. We saw bird droppings so know that the area is used by grouse, but didn’t see any birds. The grass has been eaten down by livestock. They’ve been gone for a month, but with the dry conditions there has been little regrowth. However, this shouldn’t be a problem for grouse, according to Jack. He pointed out fresh clover leaves for good late summer feed and brush cover nearby to hide in. We walked along a ridge and could see miles and miles of great habitat in every direction.

We found lots of droppings on a rocky knoll. Jack told me the rocks hold daytime heat and provide a clear view of approaching predators so birds will roost here. While moving cattle we've come upon several grouse on just such a rocky outcropping.

It’s a mystery as to why there are such low numbers of sage-grouse on this range. On the way home we talked about possible causes. I said that cattle and sheep are bigger, but we use the range for a shorter season than in days past. We think there’s more avian predators, crows and ravens, which may or may not be part of the problem. I believe sagebrush is heavier, too dense perhaps, with fewer options left to eliminate some of it. Jack is naturally cautious about any talk of controlling sagebrush. But real answers elude us. What did the dry-farming era do to grouse numbers? Is west nile virus having an effect?

Jack and I have enough experience from both directions, livestock and wildlife, to know that we just don’t know. We know enough to question. I guess that’s what we have in common, a natural curiosity, a love of the land and animals, a penchant to learn, and an openness to the many varied values of this incredible resource.  

Meg at work

No comments:

Post a Comment