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Sage grouse population down to 22 males in North Dakota

Published: Nov. 30, 2021 at 7:03 PM CST
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - A native bird to North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and several other states has been the focus of recent policy debates. The status of the sage grouse in North Dakota hangs in the balance.

Sage grouse are native to North Dakota. In the past, residents could watch as the sage grouse performed unique dancing rituals.

“They will kind of put their wings down on the ground and bang them down a little. And then they will puff up their chests and they have these two large air sacks on the top, almost like bottom of the throat top of the chest, that they will puff out and make a popping sound. Then, they will have their tail spread out,” said Casey Anderson, chief of the wildlife division for North Dakota Game and Fish.

They live in sagebrush habitat, but that has been reduced by about 40 percent since 1950 in North Dakota. Now, they reside in under 500 square miles of Golden Valley, Slope, and Bowman counties.

“Sage grouse chicks usually like thick cover with open soils beneath them so they can run and escape predators and move around freely. And now a lot of sagebrush areas, we have has understories of crested wheatgrass, it’s just a little too thick for chicks to move around in there,” said Jesse Kolar, upland game biologist North Dakota Game and Fish.

Biologists count the males as an indicator of population. Last year, 22 male sage grouse resided in all of North Dakota. They’re down from around 30 leks, or mating areas, to just six.

“Sage grouse used to be hunted in North Dakota, but when West Nile came through it really pushed the population below what we consider huntable. So, we closed the season at that point and have since been monitoring sage grouse through our game biologists,” said Anderson.

150 to 200 males would need to be counted before wardens could reopen sage grouse hunting in North Dakota.

“In 2012, we saw the numbers jump up a bit. Sage grouse are somewhat interesting. We always associate our wildlife population declines with severe winters, but for sage grouse, when there’s adequate amounts of sagebrush on the landscape, they can do better in the winter than most of our pheasants or sharp-tail grouse or partridge,” said Kolar.

Game wardens say, habitat initiatives are in place and federal funds have been used to improve sage grouse habitat in North Dakota, but habitat fragmentation and slow growth rates of sagebrush inhibit restoration efforts.

“There was a big push to improve sage grouse habitat across the range nationwide. So, a lot of landowners and [North Dakota Game and Fish] got together to figure out some practices that could improve sage grouse habitat. Realistically, we have had quite a few landowners down there that have done a lot of things to try to improve that,” said Anderson.

“Most sage grouse biologists don’t think they will recover without overflow from Montana. Most people see one of those leks, the mating grounds, that once they get below 10-15 males at a lek they blip out within 10-15 years,” added Kolar.

“We got below a threshold that we kind of need a spillover if we are going to get that back up and going at a decent level,” added Anderson.

Wardens say policy changes in other areas could impact management in North Dakota.

Last week, the Bureau of Land Management announced plans for the revival of conservation plans for the sage grouse habitat. The announcement could affect habitat conservation and restoration plans across ten states. The Interior Department agency is reviewing scientific data to determine how to manage the bird’s habitat.

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