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Miles City Meeting II

Meeting Summary

Miles City Sage Grouse Local Working Group

February 23, 2004

Welcome/Introduction

Purpose of the second round of local working group meetings was to continue the local working group effort and to provide some fundamental sage grouse information, recognizing that at the first meeting participants had widely differing levels of understanding about sage grouse and need for the state conservation effort.

Anne Cossitt, Cossitt Consulting, introduced herself and team members Charlie Eustace and Susan Bury. She briefly recapped information from the first meeting. (Note: for more detail on information from the first meeting, refer to the first meeting summary. Meeting summaries are available at the local working group website or by contacting Anne Cossitt-see last page of this meeting summary for website address and other contact information.) The Cossitt team is providing facilitation and other support for the local working group effort.

Meeting participants, numbering approximately 30 persons, then introduced themselves.

Anne Cossitt referred to a variety of handouts during the meeting. These included:

  • Materials from the last meeting, including the local working group charter, fact sheets, and meeting summary
  • Table of Contents and Glossary from the Draft State Plan. Since the plan is in the process of being finalized full copies have not yet been made. The Draft State Plan (as released last year) is available at the local working group website and upon request. (See Contact information on the last page of this summary.) Copies of the updated draft plan will be distributed to working group members as soon as it is available. No major substantive changes are anticipated in the process of finalizing the plan. Some questions raised at the first round of meetings in Dillon, Miles City and Glasgow indicated not all persons were familiar with sage grouse terminology, so the Glossary was copied and distributed as follow-up at this second round of meetings.
    Agency commitments to the plan, excerpted from the draft state plan.
  • Update on actions being taken by all 11 states with sage grouse habitat
  • Section VI of the state plan as most recently updated (as noted above, the state plan is being finalized.) Section VI includes the "toolbox" of action strategies for sage grouse conservation.
  • Table 1-1 from the draft plan that identifies ecological units and sub-units. This was provided in response to a question raised at the first round of meetings, "Will some areas of the state be asked to make up habitat losses experienced in other parts of the state?" The plan indicates: " Maintain the current distribution of sage grouse in Montana within the two broad sagebrush ecological types and their subunits."

Sage Grouse Biology

Team member Charlie Eustace, a game bird biologist, with more than 30 years of experience in game bird biology in Montana, presented information about what is known about the sage grouse. He noted that sagebrush habitat, which the grouse requires for survival and reproduction, has diminished throughout the species' 11-state range. Over the past century, Montana's sage grouse population has fluctuated with conditions and is now trending downward.

Eustace then reviewed the species' survival and reproductive needs over the course of the four seasons, and he presented statistics on lek numbers, numbers of birds harvested, and more.

Full information from the presentation will be incorporated into a project fact sheet.

Eustace responded to several questions from the group:

  • Do sage hens breed in their first year? Yearling hens do breed but tend to have smaller clutches and are not as persistent in nesting as birds two years and older.
  • What is the average number of birds on a lek? Averages have ranged from a low of 17 males on a lek to highs in the mid-30s, with the occasional low of 3 to 4 males on a lek and the rare high of more than 100. Females are extremely difficult to count.
  • What has been the effect of predator conservation on sage grouse? There are no statewide statistics. In a 1997-1999 research project, as many coyotes were killed as possible, using helicopters and airplanes. While the purpose was to measure the effect on antelope populations, researchers also observed the increase or decrease in number of leks in the study area. After the intense predator control, leks in the controlled area doubled -- and leks in a comparison area without predator control also doubled. Overall, research finds that about half of predator control efforts have an effect on sage grouse leks, and half of such efforts have no effects.
  • What happened when predator pelts had a market value, back in the 1970s? The highest sage grouse harvest occurred in 1964 when the predator control chemical 1080 (now banned) was in use.

Sage Grouse Populations in the Region

John Ensign, FWP wildlife biologist in southeast Montana, presented information about the grouse in this region, from the Big Horn and Musselshell rivers east to the Dakota border, and from the Missouri Breaks south to the Wyoming border. In general, "the birds seem to be holding their own." In this region, he said, more than 80 percent of land is still native range.

Ensign explained that FWP conducts lek surveys, harvest surveys, and winter surveys (the birds tend to concentrate in smaller areas during winter, so they are easier to count). Surveys have increased since the mid-1990s, when concern about the sage grouse arose. Comprehensive winter surveys were conducted in 2002 and 2003, after significant snows concentrated the birds. Ensign gave a conservative estimate of the total number of sage grouse in Montana as 100,000. He said additional research and surveys are underway to better quantify the populations and understand population dynamics.

Ensign responded to questions from the group:

  • Most landowners know how many leks and birds are on their property, but why would they tell federal authorities? If the sage grouse becomes protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), landowners with leks may come under increased regulation. Ensign explained that landowners are not required to reveal information, but state agencies must do so. Also, if Montana can show that it has a healthy grouse population, that will argue against listing.
  • Do reduced grouse numbers result from migration? Only those sage grouse in the southwest part of the state are migratory, although birds may visit different leks. If conditions deteriorate, the grouse in the east will move to better locations but not over significant distances.
  • What about sage grouse numbers on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge? The federal authorities are counting sage grouse on the refuge. On the south side in the Missouri Breaks, there is little suitable sagebrush habitat.
  • When counts differ year to year, could that just be better counting? Yes.
  • Is there a rule-of-thumb such as "if you see one sage grouse, there's actually 10"? Ensign explained how winter survey counts are done: after a winter storm, researchers in planes find grouse tracks in the snow ("like black strings across the prairie"), go the spots where the tracks lead, flush out birds, and count them.
  • One attendee said he did not believe the sage grouse population has changed as much as Ensign's charts indicate. Ensign agreed, explaining that conditions year-to-year are different, as noted on the charts.

Group Communication and Process

Susan Bury invited group members to offer suggestions about communications tools for the project and asked for their opinions about the existing website, a proposed newsletter, and additional fact sheets. Several group members noted that many people do not have access to the web and will need to receive information in hard copy. One member advocated getting project information out to the larger community -- the "80 percent in the middle," who do not have strong opinions about sage grouse but who should be informed about the project. Bury asked people to think about community locations (post office, cafes, etc.) where the newsletter could be distributed, and she invited people to volunteer to help with distribution.

Cossitt presented some considerations for local working group process, including:

  • Recognition that these meetings are open, public meetings
  • Meeting summaries are intended to provide an overview so people who weren't at the meeting can understand generally what transpired at the meetings; the meeting summaries are not intended as transcripts. If you find errors in the meeting summaries, please contact Anne Cossitt.
  • Ground rules for group process
  • Participation and Decision-making. Types of decision-making depend on the complexity of the decision. The facilitators will recommend methods for decision-making at appropriate points in upcoming meetings.
  • Cossitt then asked group members to look at maps on display in the meeting room, which showed buffered locations of identified leks. The group spent about 40 minutes in small groups, examining the maps and discussing where birds and leks are found.

Final Comments

When the group reconvened, these comments were made by group members:

  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should make a presentation at the next meeting about the ESA listing status of sage grouse, thresholds for listing species, and other information. FWS needs to explain its Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts, because the state sage grouse management plan is designed to respond to that policy.
  • One member noted that since the pesticide DDT was banned, numbers of golden eagles and other predators have risen, causing a threat to sage grouse.
  • One member asked, "why keep hunting sage grouse if their populations are declining?" John Ensign said the statewide harvest rate is approximately 5 percent of the total estimated statewide grouse population and that a harvest rate that remains under 10 percent should pose no threat to a species with a high reproductive rate.
  • One group member who had also participated in developing the statewide plan noted that FWP changed its position over the course of creating the plan and agreed to treat hunting and predation as problems for the sage grouse. He noted that hunting can be addressed by the local working group if hunting is believed to be a problem for local grouse populations.

In response to some area-specific questions, John Ensign noted:

  • A landowner may have a lek that is not noted on the maps because FWP is not following activity on that lek.
  • If a landowner wants to attract birds, he or she should ask FWP or other authority to look at the conditions on the land and suggest how better grouse habitat might by created. Some state funding is available to landowners for such purposes.
  • Landowners are welcome to help FWP make counts of leks and grouse, and interested people should contact John Ensign. Cossitt noted that the plan includes a standardized approach to such counts.

Next Meeting Date and Adjournment

In response to Cossitt's request for feedback about the effectiveness of the meetings, group members requested that maps be produced with more clear points of reference and that meetings include more time for comments and questions. For its next meeting dates, the group selected Monday, April 26, and Monday, June 14, at the same location.

Cossitt concluded the meeting by asking the group members to read the "toolbox" of conservation actions from the statewide plan in time to discuss these at the next meeting, and she asked members to think about where the group should go on a field trip.

PARTICIPANTS

JoLynn Anderson
John Baldwin
Charles Balsam
Scott Cassel
Tom Courtney
Chad Cyrus
Scott Denso
Ronald Devlin
Dawn Doran
John Ensign
Barry Emmons
Rick Fighter
Darrel Hanson
Marian Hanson
Terry Haughian
Joseph Icenogle
Ward Jackson
Jerry Kobriger
John Krutzfeldt
Bill Lane
Clyde Leuchmer
George Luther
Peter Martin
Scott McAvoy
Tim Ostendorf
Bill Perkins
Lane Pilster
Larry Pilster
Demi Pluhan
Bill Pruitt
Curtis RidesHorse
Scott Robinson
Brad Sauer
Dean Seifert
Rick Strohmeyer
Monty Sullins
Peter Taylor
Watty Taylor
Dale Tribby
Kent Undlin
Bruce Waage
Kent Williams

Contact:

Contact Anne Cossitt at cossitt@usadig.com, (406) (406) 633-2213, or by mail at 503 Fifth Avenue NW, Park City, MT 59063.