OLYMPIA — Two dozen sage-grouse have been released on shrub-steppe habitat on the Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property in Lincoln County, as part of a multi-year effort to establish a third sage-grouse population in the state.
The sage-grouse, listed by the state as a threatened species, is native to eastern Washington, although the recently released birds came from Oregon. The released birds—eight males and 16 females—were captured at Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge near Lakeview, Ore. Before release each bird was fitted with radio-telemetry equipment to enable monitoring their survival and movements, including whether they join birds that were previously released.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) conducted the recent release, as well as a similar release of 17 sage-grouse last spring at the same Lincoln County locations, said Derek Stinson, a WDFW endangered-species biologist. Some of those birds remained in the area and some were killed by predators, although post-release monitoring was hampered by defective radio transmitters, he said.
Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area assistant manager Mike Finch releases a radio-collared
“This week’s release will help us determine whether the birds establish breeding grounds next spring, and that will help determine the location of future grouse releases,” Stinson said.
The sage-grouse reintroduction project—in its first year—is a joint effort involving WDFW, BLM, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Inland Northwest Wildlife Council. The plan calls for releasing 40 birds in each of the next three years—20 each spring and 20 each fall. If successful, the newly established population of sage-grouse could connect Washington’s two other remaining populations.
About 600 sage-grouse are in shrub-steppe and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) habitat in Douglas and Grant counties, mostly on private land. Another 200 are in shrub-steppe habitat on the federally managed Yakima Training Center in Kittitas and Yakima counties.
The greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) was listed as a threatened species by Washington state in 1998. In 2001, the Washington population of the sage-grouse also became a candidate for federal listing as a threatened species, under the Endangered Species Act.
The reduction in the number and distribution of sage-grouse in Washington is largely due to habitat loss and degradation, Stinson said.
In Washington, sage-grouse historically ranged from the Columbia River to Oroville, and from the eastern Cascades foothills to the Spokane River. By the early 1900s, sage-grouse had disappeared from much of that area. The population on the Fitzner and Eberhardt Arid Lands Ecology Reserve at Hanford in Benton County was evidently lost after catastrophic wild fires in 1981 and 1984. The breeding population in Lincoln County was gone by 1985 because of habitat changes.
Sage-grouse have survived in parts of Douglas County that were not converted to agriculture, and on the Yakima Training Center, a military reservation where development did not occur, Stinson said.
The birds would be considered sufficiently recovered for removal from the state threatened species list once the average breeding-season population reaches 3,200 birds for a period of 10 years, and active breeding areas are established in six or more designated management units, Stinson said.
For more information on sage grouse in Washington, see http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/research/projects/grouse/greater_sage-grouse/.