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Glasgow Meeting VI

Next meeting date will be January 12, 2005

Meeting Summary
Glasgow Sage Grouse Local Working Group
October 6, 2004

Summary prepared by Cossitt Consulting

Welcome/Introductions

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
  • Results of a study in southeastern Alberta have been recently published.   "Beneficial Grazing Management Practices for Sage Grouse and Ecology of Silver Sagebrush" is available on the web at the following address:
    http://www3.gov.ab.ca/srd/land/m_rm_monitoring.html

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 much does bad winter weather affect sage grouse?  

A:   It is not documented as a major factor in overall mortality.   Sage grouse survive winters better than other upland game birds.

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

Group Discussion:

Persons present agreed that current conditions didn't appear to warrant any new kind of predator control at the current time.   Coyotes, gulls, raptors were all listed as predators in the area that prey on 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

We need to be concerned about the areas with small bird populations.   In places where bird populations may be small or threatened, we should be paying attention and perhaps limiting hunting in those areas.

Pat Gunderson provided some local-specific information on hunting and sage grouse populations.   He confirmed that hunting in the past decade has resulted in much lower harvest rates than the 10% maximum allowable rates.   Overall in northeastern Montana, trends in northeastern Montana indicate that sage grouse populations are healthy, with increasing numbers of males per lek between 1977 and 2003.   Just over 1500 strutting males were counted in 2003.   Populations do not appear affected by season length or bag limit.

Questions/Comments:

Concern that there are 2 distinct sage grouse populations in northern Montana—those north of the Milk River and closer to Canada; and those south of the Milk River.   It appears that those north of the Milk River may be in decline.

There was concern about the triggers to "adapt" harvest management per the state conservation plan based on the determination of genetic diversity or a population of less than 300.   If the birds are in decline, that should be enough.   Absolute numbers such as 300 can be difficult to determine.

Need to manage north part of county (and also the north part of the counties from Glasgow west to Havre) with an eye toward the vulnerability of those populations north of the Milk River.

San Stiver commented that the populations look good up here in northeastern Montana and if all stays the same (without new threats to habitat) shouldn't really be a problem.   The key to the work to keep from having the birds be listed is identifying the negative trends and identifying ways to deal with them.   But from what he's seen there isn't much of a negative trend (except possibly for north county).

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 the next meeting.   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. Detailed information on "north" sage grouse population (north of Milk River).   More data on populations, habitat, threats, etc.   The group agreed that the north county population needs more specific study to assess condition and trends for that group.   There is some information now to indicate they may be on a downward trend (and certainly that is the case just a bit to the north in Canada).   If trends are down, the group thought that various potential causes and "fixes" should be examined.

  2. Continue sage grouse counts throughout the area—especially winter counts. (suggested by Pat Gunderson)

  3. Project on LU land—converted to crested wheat—convert now to habitat more productive for sage grouse—introduce other species and sage brush   (Leo Barthelmess said he'd be willing to try it on his place…)

  4. Bus tour in the spring—visit various habitats, see various projects, etc.

Follow-Up

  • Cossitt will work with participants to help further refine and shape project ideas and group coordination for continuing into 2005.   This will be discussed at the January meeting.
  • Set up presentation with Grazing Association (Pat Gunderson and John Carlson were going to work with Diane to do something in February at their annual 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 January 12, 2005.   Topics to be discussed include:

  • Mining and Energy Development
  • Revisit Power Lines
  • Review work-to-date
  • 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

Rich Adams
Leo Barthelmess
Chuck Carlson
John Carlson
Diane Dirkson
Randy Dirkson
John Fahlgren
Bill French
Meagan Gates
Pat Gunderson
Amy Hladek
Larry Murphy
Greg Oxarart
David L. Pippin
Fritz Prellwitz
Everett Russell
Maxine Korman
Clive Rooney
Mark Sullivan
Leonard Swenson