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Miles City Meeting VI

Please note that the next meeting date is: January 10, 2005

Meeting Summary

Miles City Sage Grouse Local Working Group

October 4, 2004

Summary prepared by Cossitt Consulting


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.


  • Updated plan as finalized and approved by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Commission is available on the sage grouse website .
  • 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
  • Thehabitat 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


  • What's the status of the BLM national sage grouse strategy?

    San: Not yet finalized; will likely be released by end of November 2004
  • What is the status of other plans?

    San: Copies of the local working group plans from Nevada are available from Nevada at their website.

    When developing your local working group plans, follow these steps:

    • Identify the imminent risks to the habitat
    • Prioritize risks
    • Analyze the situation
    • Monitor results


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.

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.


  • 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.

John Ensign, FWP biologist, reviewed a single sheet handout (both sides) on harvest statistics statewide and for southeastern Montana. FWP is working toward better data to make informed decisions on harvest management. John mentioned a study that is currently underway in central Montana to test the effects of hunting on sage grouse population. John also indicated that season length doesn't seem to make a difference on the population. Bag limits may make a difference and can be based on the average number of birds per lek. For areas with more than 25 males per lek, a bag limit of 4 birds/bag is acceptable, but for areas with less than that bag limits should be reduced.

Projects and Continuing the work of the Miles City 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 of 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.)
  • Coordinate these efforts with conservation districts, NRCS, etc.
  • Next meeting January 10—focused on energy-related issues, but begin the meeting with the discussion of local working group projects
  • Group will ask Jeff Mosley to come in spring of 2005 to present on livestock/grazing in sage grouse habitat (note that Mosley is a professor at Montana State University Bozeman who presented at the September meeting in Glasgow and whose presentation was well-received). This would be at the first meeting run by the co-chairs.

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

  • Habitat assessment at Doug Campbell's (in reference to the offer from Doug Campbell at the previous meeting). This is known sage grouse habitat with known populations (but unclear if there are actual local population estimates). One issue is sagebrush canopy—Doug has been advised by at least one source to thin the sage brush canopy to promote better understory growth.
  • Develop base line data by specific geographic areas (such as watersheds). This could be done similar to the way in which it has been done by the coal bed methane coordination coalition in Wyoming (for issues broader than just sage grouse). This idea came from Watty Taylor, who was unable to attend the meeting, but who had called and asked Anne Cossitt to share the concept with the group.


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.


Doug Campbell
Tom Courtney
John Ensign
Clark Fritz
Gary Huckins
Ward Jackson
Larry Murphy
Brad Sauer
Dean Seifert
Dale Tribby
Kent Undlin
Carol Watts