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Sage Grouse Counts Remain Low

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Monday, April 28, 2014

Results from North Dakota’s spring sage grouse survey indicate the number of strutting males observed remains well below management objectives. Therefore, the sage grouse hunting season will remain closed in 2014.

Aaron Robinson, North Dakota Game and Fish Department upland game bird biologist, said biologists counted a record low 31 males on six active strutting grounds. Last year, 50 males were counted on 11 active leks in the southwest.

“South Dakota and eastern Montana witnessed a similar decline this year,” Robinson said. “The last time we saw such a drastic decline in the region was because of West Nile virus in 2007-08. We may have had another outbreak in the region, but at this point it is only speculation.”

Sage grouse are a long-lived species with low reproductive output, which makes population recovery slow. Currently, Robinson said, natural reproduction cannot keep up with natural mortality.

“We may also have reached a genetic bottle neck in terms of reproduction potential that may be a factor in the struggling population,” he added. “Also, there are only six active leks for roughly 460,000 square acres of core sage grouse area. The densities of active leks may be limiting hens from finding males to breed.”

Robinson said if another state is willing to provide some birds for a translocation, it may be the last chance to directly impact the population in North Dakota. “The success of such a project is not guaranteed, but it is our only option to increase the genetic diversity of our population,” he said.

The potential for a successful nesting season is good this year due to abundant residual grass cover brought about by last summer’s rainfall. “We have learned from recent research in North Dakota that sage grouse rely heavily on residual grass cover for concealment during nesting season,” Robinson said. “Without grass cover, mortality of females on nests increases and the probability that the nest will be depredated also increases. The outlook for a favorable hatch this year looks optimistic for the limited number of birds we have in the state.”

Sage grouse management in North Dakota follows a specific plan developed by a diverse group of participants. With the threats facing the species and the decline in population, Game and Fish Department biologists do not foresee a hunting season in the near future.

Sage grouse are North Dakota’s largest native upland game bird. They are found in extreme southwestern North Dakota, primarily in Bowman and Slope counties.