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Dillon Meeting VI

Next meeting will be January 26, 2005.

Meeting Summary

Dillon Sage Grouse Local Working Group

October 13, 2004

Summary prepared by Cossitt Consulting

Welcome/Introduction

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.

Updates

  • Updated plan as finalized and approved by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Commission is available on sage grouse website
    http://fwp.mt.gov/fishAndWildlife/management/sageGrouse/default.html
  • Will be working on a brochure of actions that landowners can take to maintain or improve sage grouse habitat and sage grouse populations

Background of WAFWA Sage Grouse Conservation Activities

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:

  • 1994- A technical committee of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) (a multi-state group that also includes provinces in Canada) makes a case for studying the current status of sage grouse and requests states to begin management efforts
  • 1995- developed MOUs for a conservation strategy starting from local areas up -several states get started
  • The habitat area for sage grouse is large—approximately 258,000 square miles of current occupied range
  • Starting in 1995, states and provinces began to collect better, more standardized, data on sage grouse
  • 2000- Sage Grouse Conservation Interagency Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). Participants included WAFWA, USFS, BLM, and FWS. Entered into contract to write the status assessment.
  • States are actively making progress toward conservation plans. Currently there are 45 active local working groups, and a total of 70 are projected to be active within the next two years
  • 95% of all sage grouse habitat will fall under a local plan of some type.
  • Actions of the Planning Framework Team:
    • Provide technical assistance
    • Public outreach
    • Phase II Strategy report (will be completed in a year or two—the strategy will cover the West)
    • Applied Research
      • Monitoring Protocol
      • Population estimates
    • Develop national funding initiatives

Questions:

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.

Predation

Cossitt distributed the matrix of conservation actions related to predation issues. San Stiver provided a power point presentation on predation. Key points included:

  • Predation is part of the natural cycle for sage grouse (San showed some photos of birds in New Zealand that were more than 7 feet high at the hip joint—the result of genetic response to total lack of predators)
  • Nest predation. If more than 40% of chicks/eggs in a nest are lost to predation, there is a problem. Nest predators include ravens, crows, magpies, badgers, skunks, snakes, in some cases even deer and elk. Red fox appear also to be a significant nest predator. Ground squirrels have been thought to be nest predators, but recent studies indicate they cannot crack open sage grouse eggs.
  • Chick predation. Predators can include coyotes, foxes, badgers, ravens, hawks, snakes. There is little documented evidence of the magnitude of chick predation due to the difficulty of monitoring.
  • Adult sage grouse predation. Male mortality tends to run about 40-45% annually; female mortality runs about 30-35%. They have a limited number of predators—eagles, carnivores, and humans.
  • Determining if predation is a problem:
    • Inventory the prey. What is the status of the population? What is the growth rate?
    • Inventory the predators.
    • Evaluate to determine if the situation is unusual.
    If you have a predator issue:
    • Develop identified outcomes
    • Develop treatment
    • Monitor effects
  • Studies of predation control and unanticipated effects of predator control
    • Coyote control in Nevada reduced the coyote population but the number of red foxes went up. Red foxes are very effective nest predators and kill the setting hens. In the area studied, the ratio of hens to males, typically about 2 females for every 1 male, changed so that there was only one hen for about every 5 males.
    • Ongoing studies in Nevada that compare various sites are not yet conclusive about effects of predator control and sage grouse populations

Questions/Comments:

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.

Harvest Management

Cossitt distributed the matrix of conservation actions related to harvest management issues. San Stiver provided a power point presentation. Key points included:

  • The harvest management goal should generally be that the population in year 2 equals the population in year 1.
  • There are good data in the literature regarding the mortality/longevity of sage grouse. These data do not yet reflect the effect of West Nile Virus on sage grouse. Data from last year indicate that any sage grouse that gets West Nile Virus dies from it; there is no immunity. With that said, existing data indicate that compared to other upland game birds, sage grouse are long-lived (several years) and have little winter mortality.
  • Determining the base population requires good monitoring. The standardized method of counting birds (as endorsed by the planning framework team) is to count the number of males on a lek. Total population numbers are derived by using calculations for the numbers of males who don't show on a lek (estimated at as much as 50% on any one day), and ratios of females to males.
  • Determining the success of chick survival is difficult at best. Currently the best way to obtain this information is via wing data from hunter harvests. Sage grouse on average need a chick survival rate of approximately 1.5 chicks per hen to hold the population.
  • How does hunting affect sage grouse populations? Hunting doesn't appear to affect populations if the harvest is 10% or less of the total population. Harvesting doesn't appear to affect population trends, but it does parallel population trends (in other words if the population has gone down, the number of birds harvested also goes down).
  • It is the harvest rate, not the season length that can make a difference in the population. Montana has the longest hunting season of any of the states with sage grouse habitat. In the past few years harvest average has been about 6,000 birds per year statewide. Since the conservative total population estimate in Montana is 120,000 sage grouse, the harvest is clearly less than 10%. Sage grouse harvest has declined dramatically since it peaked at about 80,000 birds in the late 1970s.

Questions/Comments

  • Maybe hunters aren't going out so much specifically for sage grouse, but if they are out antelope hunting and they see sage grouse, then they might also be sage grouse hunters.
  • Hunters do have to buy licenses, so there is some cost associated with hunting.
  • Isn't chick survival more important for the viability of the overall population than adult survival? If you're going to allow hunting of adult birds, we should consider lessening the requirements of other conservation actions geared toward adult birds such as relate to fencing and power lines.

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).

Questions/Comments:

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.

Wrap-Up

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.

Projects and Continuing the work of the Sage Grouse Local Working Group

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:

  • Informal approach—no formal committee membership, but two co-chairs would need to be identified. At least one of the co-chairs would be from the private sector.
  • Agencies will provide logistical support to the co-chairs (e.g., helping to set up meetings, send out notices, mailings, etc.)

Projects. Projects "on the table" as discussed by the group are:

  1. Work on weed control in breeding/brooding habitats. Grants are available for this.
  2. Better detailed inventory of birds in specific areas (focusing on vulnerable areas first). Cossitt gave a brief summary of a discussion on this topic as suggested by Pat Fosse, who was unable to attend the meeting. Essentially, the concept is that it would be good to get better information on what the populations really are and how they move on the landscape. Reyer Rens brought a summary of a similar project and submitted to Cossitt.
  3. Synthesize data better and in a timely matter so it can be used better for sage grouse analysis (from Richard Wheeler).
  4. Send a letter to the editor of the Dillon Tribune from this group in support of CA-40 for the noxious weed trust fund. (Note this was done and the letter is being posted on the sage grouse local working group website.)

Follow-Up

  • Cossitt will work with participants to help further refine and shape project ideas and group coordination after March of 2005. This will be discussed at the January meeting.
  • Cossitt to talk with folks before next meeting regarding volunteers for co-chairs.
  • The Planning Framework Team is working to have a meeting of all local working groups across the 11-state range in February in Reno. Local Working groups will be asked to send representatives, and there will be stipends available for travel, etc.

Next Meeting

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:

  • Livestock Grazing (group asked that Jeff Mosley come and present)
  • Update on FWS decision
  • Finalizing projects
  • Finalizing agenda, dates, of next meeting
  • Finalize group organization—co-chairs, etc., who will attend multi-state local working group meeting in February

Participants

Jay Bodner
Tim Bozorth
Nate Finch
Randy Gazda
Ross Hansen
Jim Hagenbarth
Sierra Harris
Garth Haughland
Thayne Husely
Gilbert Little
Chuck Maddox
Jules Marchesseault
Sam Milodragovich
Bruce Nelson
Lori Nordstrom
Reyer Rens
Swede Troedsson
Dawn Stiver
Don White
Rich Wheeler