Next meeting will be January 26, 2005.
Anne Cossitt, Local Working Group Facilitator, welcomed the group, reviewed the agenda, and the overall goals of the conservation plan and local working group effort.
Cossitt introduced San Stiver, guest speaker for this round of sage grouse local working group meetings. San is wildlife biologist for the sage grouse planning framework team that was established in 2000. As part of his work on that team, San participated in the preparation of the 600 page status report that was submitted to the federal Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in the Spring of 2004. FWS is using this document in their status review. The document is available on the sage grouse website (see address above under "Updates).
San started with a power point presentation on the background of the sage grouse conservation actions taken by the western states. Some of the key points include:
Q: How do Montana's efforts with local working groups and a state conservation plan stack up to what is being accomplished in other states?
A: Montana started its local working groups later than some other states, but if you are getting close to working on projects, then you are catching up quickly.
Q: How are other states doing with implementation?
A: Implementation is being set back in some ways by lack of funding for projects. Most states only have a few hundred thousand dollars to fund projects. Montana is ahead in that regard with the $3 million allocated to the Sagebrush Initiative program.
Cossitt distributed the matrix of conservation actions related to predation issues. San Stiver provided a power point presentation on predation. Key points included:
Comment: Much of the actions in the state plan related to predation focus on vegetative cover for sage grouse (as a means to hide from prey), and that's why there is a lot of pressure to reduce grazing. There are not, however, any definitive studies out there that show that if you get rid of the livestock that there's less of a predation problem.
Response: Studies are being conducted in Nevada now. In one of these studies, with two study areas—one with grazing and one without---it appears thus far that the sage grouse populations are doing as well with grazing. It looks like habitat fragmentation may be a bigger issue at the study areas, but it's not conclusive. There are certainly some places where the population has decreased but the habitat does not appear to have changed.
Sagebrush treatments have long term effects. It may be 30 to 60 years before the sagebrush can function as habitat for sage grouse.
Cossitt distributed the matrix of conservation actions related to harvest management issues. San Stiver provided a power point presentation. Key points included:
Craig Fager reviewed some local-specific information on hunting and sage grouse populations. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) has increased the number of wing barrels in various hunting areas. Most of the harvest occurs at the beginning of the season and then it drops off as hunters move on to other hunting (archery, big game, etc.). The highest record sage grouse harvest in Beaverhead County was 8,700 in 1979. From 1997-1999, between 400 and 850 birds. The Department had decreased the bag limits to 2 birds in Southwest Montana, but increased back up to 3 birds in 2000. The state plan calls for adaptive harvest management and the FWP will be looking at the populations and applying less restrictive requirements when populations are up, and more restrictive seasons and bag limits when populations are down. FWP is conducting research on the effects of hunting with a controlled study in central Montana—and the results should be available by January of 2005.
Generally, populations are stable or increasing in this part of Montana. The 2003 hunting season indicated a tremendous success rate for young birds in 2003, despite drought conditions (that have persisted over several years). There are, however, some populations that are more isolated and where populations may be more vulnerable. (Rochester Basin was identified as an area with dwindling populations).
Q: Would the FWP ever shorten the hunting season?
A: (Craig Fager) We would consider it for specific populations. For example if there was documentation that the population is down 45% or more on a lek(s).
Q: How many years of data do you need to have a change in a season?
A: (Craig Fager) We would need about 10 years of data for a specific lek to be able to consider that "base" information from which decisions could be made about population fluctuations.
Comment: (San Stiver) It would appear that there might be different populations that might need to be monitored separately (e.g., Wisdom may not be the same bird population as the birds around Bannack?)
Response: (various from group) Documentation exists that indicate a male bird may be participating in several (6 or 7) leks, 10-20 miles apart each, with estimated total distance between farthest locations at 60-70 air miles.
Q: What is the effect of winter and drought on the birds?
A: (Stiver) Winter doesn't seem to be a problem as long as there is good sagebrush cover. Not sure what effects of drought are.
(Craig Fager) Wing counts indicated the birds flourished in 2003 after years of drought. Initial information from 2004 indicates that the bird population is down. We don't know what caused this—p erhaps too wet and too cold at just the wrong time during brood-rearing? The area did get quite a bit of cold weather and rain in June.
Comment: The birds in Big Sheep Basin stay in Big Sheep Basin—they do not migrate to Idaho.
The group generally agreed that the focus of specific actions for predation and harvest management should be related to the viability of specific populations. As long as bird populations and population dynamics are clearly static or growing, there is less need to consider changes needed to improve the population. In cases where bird populations appear to be decreasing, causes of declining population, such as predation and harvest management, should be examined along with other potential causes, and specific actions should be identified, implemented, and monitored.
Participants then discussed projects and how to continue this local working group.
Cossitt reminded the group that the facilitation provided by Cossitt Consulting will end after March 2005. Local working groups need to identify how they will continue efforts. The group agreed on:
Projects. Projects "on the table" as discussed by the group are:
Next meeting will be Wednesday, January 26, 2005. (Note that the third Wednesdays of the month were identified as a conflict date). Topics to be discussed at the next meeting include: