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Sage Grouse

House Bill 271, Game bird farms – Greater sage grouse, passed during this session of the Wyoming Legislature. The bill would amend language in Wyoming Statutes to allow game bird farms to legally possess, propagate, breed, sell, raise and release Greater sage grouse.

Scott Smith, deputy director of external operations at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, noted that the bill was the biggest piece of legislation affecting sage grouse during the session.

“The legislation amends existing statutes on the books for game bird farming that specifically address raising sage grouse,” he said during the Feb. 27 meeting of the Sage Grouse Implementation Team (SGIT). “It also lays out that the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission (WGFC) must establish rules and regulations that game bird farms have to operate under to raise sage grouse.”

Moving through

  Smith noted, “The bill had several amendments that worked through the body, and this is what was settled on.”

Bob Budd, chair of SGIT and executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, said, “When the bill was in committee, we worked on a number of things.”

He continued, “We encouraged the committee to change a lot of ‘mays’ to ‘shalls.’ For example, the Commission shall determine where collections can occur and how many.”

With strict regulations in place, Budd noted that sage grouse rearing is unlikely to be overwhelmingly prevalent.

“I don’t think anyone anticipates that we’ll have hundreds of sage grouse farms in the state,” Budd said, “but there are potential upsides for people.”

Inside the bill

According to the Wyoming Legislative Service Office (LSO), the bill provides a process by which game bird farms can receive a certificate to raise Greater sage grouse and “specifies criteria which must be met to qualify for a certificate, including having successfully raised at least two other species of game birds from eggs or chicks and having an adequate enclosure and vegetation for sage grouse.”

Additionally, farms receiving certification must renew their licensure annually, after demonstrating that they meet the criteria.

“The bill authorizes gathering of sage grouse eggs under the supervision of a wildlife biologist and in coordination with WGFD,” LSO continues. “The bill provides limits on the number of eggs gathered, nesting sites disturbed and months in which eggs may be collected.”

Smith added, “The Legislature left quite a lot of discretion for the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission on sage grouse rearing. There are a lot of things the Commission will need to decide.”

Rules and regulations that govern the collection of sage grouse eggs and more are required to be established by Sept. 1, 2017.

“The rules that would be implemented under this endeavor would include rules on collecting sage grouse eggs in the wild, bringing them back into captivity and rearing them,” he described.

A look back

Over the last five years, a handful of proponents have advocated for the ability to raise sage grouse in captivity, with the goal of supplementing naturally occurring populations.

“I think this idea got legs when a game bird farm operator who has a fairly good success rate said he was interested in seeing if it could be done,” Budd explained. “There are numerous people who backed the idea.”

In the past, the idea has always come through the Wyoming Legislature as a footnote or amendment to the budget bill, where it did not succeed, but Budd added that with the decision of whether or not to list the sage grouse as a big question in the past, the measure never passed.

“The bird not being listed has changed this,” he said. “Now, that the sage grouse is  not listed as an endangered species, we’re willing to try to raise them in captivity.”

Other efforts to raise sage grouse in captivity have been undertaken at the Calgary Zoo, with various rates of success, but Budd commented, “Most of these efforts have been conducted by scientists and not game bird farmers. There’s a chance that farmers will do something different.”

Looking forward

While there are still a number of questions in place, such as how well the birds will survive after being reared in captivity and released, Budd commented that conversations will continue to take place.

“This will give us plenty to discuss moving forward,” he said.

Budd noted that the Commission will likely begin formulating rules at their next meeting, scheduled for March 23-24.

The bill was sponsored by Reps. Halverson, Eric Barlow, Landon Brown, Scott Clem, Roy Edwards, Lars Lone, Bunky Loucks, David Miller and Dan Zwonitzer,

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

On June 3 Governor Matt Mead signed an updated version of the Sage-Grouse Core Area Protection Executive Order, which is said to provide more flexibility for management in core areas while adding language requiring continual reevaluation of science and data for sage grouse management.
The new order replaces the document signed by former Governor Dave Freudenthal in 2010, and leaves the boundaries of the core area intact.
“This is not an action I take lightly or without reservation. However, because the listing of the greater sage grouse as a threatened or endangered species could cripple the economy of our state, I believe this executive order is needed,” said Mead. “I believe this effort, which started almost a decade ago, represents the most significant conservation measure ever undertaken by a state in support of protecting a species.”
Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has expressed support for the core area strategy, some landowners remain hesitant about the concept, including Natrona County landowner Doug Cooper, who says the executive order sets up a scary precedent.
“I could see a government using a similar process to say we can’t graze our cows on rangeland because it’s too dry, or too pristine,” says Cooper, adding that he thinks the Sage Grouse Implementation Team (SGIT) and the order itself were conducted in such a way that they didn’t come under the Regulatory Takings Act.
“No single agency did this, but if it had gone through one agency it would have gone through rulemaking, and the Administrative Procedures Act would have applied, and the regulations would have been reviewed for the takings implication. The whole process comes down to the fact that the Governor can do what he wants with executive orders,” he explains.
Bob Budd of the SGIT explains one of the key changes made by Mead – a direct reference to the Regulatory Takings Act.
“It’s a reminder that these restrictions may have impacts on some people, and that we have a responsibility to try to make things right by those who might have some kind of a taking,” says Budd. “There’s a burden on them to prove the taking, but the order includes a more overt recognition that this isn’t being done without sacrifice, and certainly the feds realize that everyone’s made sacrifices.”
FWS calls the executive order “sound policy” for conservation of sage grouse, and the order also factors heavily in their annual status review, which is required under the Endangered Species Act for the bird’s current “warranted but precluded” standing.
Cooper says the order includes a list of exemptions, including branding calves, trailing cattle and emergency services. However, he notes that the order says it will only regulate permitted activities, but then turns around and “allows” those day-to-day ranch activities.  
“We have the ‘right’ to do a lot of things, and who in Wyoming would have ever thought they didn’t have the ‘right’ to brand their own calves, but now the Governor says they’ll ‘allow’ us to do this,” says Cooper. “They keep saying that the executive order only affects those things that need a permit, but then it says we ‘shall’ have escape ramps in all stock tanks – and never says what will happen if we don’t use the ramps.”
Cooper says the State Engineer’s Office now requires escape ramps in stock tanks as a part of water well permits.
“There’s never been a law passed that says that, so it’s a requirement without statutory authority, and that’s what’s wrong with the whole thing,” he states. “The order prohibits wind development, but there is no law that prohibits wind development in the core.”
“There is no documentation that wind development is bad for sage grouse, but they can prohibit it anyway because they think it ought to be bad. We’ll get wind development within our ranch, whether we like it or not, but it will be on state land, which was not included in the core area,” adds Cooper, who says the core area has cost his operation millions of dollars in lost wind and oil development potential.
“My biggest problem is that we were never notified that our land was under consideration for any of this in the first place,” says Cooper of the core area strategy. “I was meeting with the local Game and Fish biologist and warden on other issues, and they never mentioned our land was being added into the core, and we weren’t added until the last meeting of SGIT, so we had no idea we would be included.”
“Normally there would have been comment periods, and there was nothing done like that. The SGIT didn’t even keep minutes, so I can’t even find out how it happened,” adds Cooper. “It’s not good government – you’re not supposed to be able to lose a property law without due process of law, notice and opportunity to speak in an orderly proceeding.”
Cooper says he’s retained an attorney, and is working out his options.
“We had to wait until Mead decided what to do, and I’m disappointed. I think he gave in, saying that we’ll do this however FWS wants it,” he states.
In addition to an attorney, Cooper says he’s working with a state legislator on what can be done statutorily.
“It looks like there’s a real gap between when an agency adopts rules and when rules come through a committee like the SGIT that hasn’t existed before – they can do what they want, without following deadlines and timelines that allow people to be notified and the chance to talk about it.”
Notwithstanding the implications, Cooper says he does applaud the goal of not getting the sage grouse listed, but, “If you read the executive order, it says we have a robust sage grouse population, but we’ll turn around and harm the people who live on the land. If this continues we’ll start to see this show up in real estate values, with a better deal outside the core, and less of a deal inside the core.”
“It’s a transfer of opportunity,” says Cooper. “I no longer have opportunity to do some things on my land so that someone someplace else can benefit through minerals. I get the sage grouse, and somebody else gets the oilfield.”
“The bottom line is that the new administration has said they think this is a good strategy, and they’ll move forward with it,” says Budd. “And that’s more important to FWS than anybody else.”
Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Casper – When the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service released their plans for Sage Grouse Management Resource Management Plan (RMP) Amendments, an objective for seven inches of stubble height on grass immediately emerged as a concern for ranchers across the West.

“In 2000, a document that came to be known as the Connelly guidelines was released,” said Dave Naugle of the Sage Grouse Initiative.

Naugle explained that the research showed higher sage grouse nest success for areas with more grass cover.

“The paradigm that prevailed was that the grass hides the nest,” he said. “Nest survival drives population growth. We built a bunch of models, and it looked like an eight percent increase could be seen in nest success with additional grass height in cover.”

As a result of the research, the Natural Resources Conservation Service began to offer additional incentives for sustainable grazing practices, wet meadow riparian restoration and more.

“We worked with over 1,600 producers in 11 western states that have sage grouse,” Naugle says.

Paradigm shift

Then, early in 2017, Gibson from the University of Nevada-Reno published a paper that disrupted assumptions about grass height, nest cover and sage grouse nest success.

“The title of the paper was, ‘Evaluating vegetation effects on animal demographics: The role in plant phenology and sampling bias,’” Naugle said, adding that Gibson’s work pointed out an important oversight from the Connelly guidelines.

In short, Naugle explained that, for many years, sage grouse were trapped in the early spring and collared. Researchers then located grouse nests.

“If the nest was unsuccessful early, then technicians would go out and measure grass height at the nest,” he says. “For successful nests, technicians returned to the nests about a month later to measure grass height. The idea was, if we disturbed the female while she was incubating the eggs, she might abandon the nest.”

Naugle continued, “It finally hit Gibson, in a big, long-term data set, the phenology – or the seasonality of growth patterns – plays a role. The grass is growing while the nest is incubating.”

Gibson looked at the data set and looked at grass height at the time when the nests were deemed successful or unsuccessful, and the relationship between grass height and nest success disintegrated.

“There’s no relationship to stubble height from his research,” Naugle said.

Affirming research

At the same time, Naugle had a graduate student working on the same concept, so they opted to affirm and enhance Gibson’s research by replicating it.

“In science, replication is big,” Naugle said. “We used Gibson’s algorithm for correcting nesting date and put everything on an even framework to see if his theory held.”

Their research was published in Ecology and Evolution and, in short, noted that usually, the relationship between grass height and nest success disappears when corrected for fate date.

“The relationship goes away in studies from Nevada, central Montana and Utah,” Naugle said. “In an older set of data from the Powder River Basin, the relationship held, but it was weakened. For the majority of data sets, once we correct for grass height measurement timing bias, the story about grass height and sage grouse nest success has been overblown.”

Looking at 1,500 nest sites over four states and pooling the data to determine which nests failed, which hatched and the grass height at both, Naugle noted the difference in grass height between successful and unsuccessful nests was 0.05 inches.

“That is the height of a penny,” Naugle said. “Evidence for the ubiquitous effect of grass height is lacking.”

“These findings could have implications during the Department of the Interior’s revisions to RMPs as it relates to public lands grazing,” Naugle emphasizes.

Continued research

A number of other grazing interaction studies are simultaneously occurring across the West, which may help to further improve the assertion that grass height negligibly impacts sage grouse nest success.

A study in Idaho has been replicated at five sites across the states. In the study, one site has 17 pastures and 80 radio-collared birds and another has 23 pastures with 90 birds collared. The study has been ongoing over the past decade.

“No grazing for four years lower nest survival, and higher nest survival was seen where spring grazing occurred,” Naugle said.

He added, “We also have to stop measuring grass just around the nest.”

Naugle explained sage grouse pick their nest location in area that fit their needs.

“Right now, we’re measuring only around the nest and then apply that measurement blindly, regardless of economic site. We’ve got to stop doing that,” he said. “Things aren’t the same when we move from small to larger scales.”

Practical implications

For ranchers, Naugle said, “Good grazing management is still important for a huge number of reasons. The importance of boosting hiding cover has been over-emphasized, however.”

He further noted that getting back to good range conservation practices will be important over the long-term.

“At the Sage Grouse Initiative, we might make updates based on the new science,” Naugle said. “We need to work on grazing management, but we have to have that conversation in the context of science.”

Naugle spoke during the 2017 Wyoming Natural Resources Rendezvous, held in late November in Casper.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Cheyenne – The Sage Grouse Implementation Team (SGIT) met to discuss the latest challenges related to sage grouse in Wyoming on Jan. 28. The team heard from a wide variety of speakers, including University of Montana’s Dave Naugle. 

Naugle, along with Kevin Doherty of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Jason Tack of Colorado State University, Brett Walker and John Graham of University of Montana and Jeff Beck of the University of Wyoming, released a research paper, titled, “Linking conservation actions to demography: Grass height explains variation in greater sage grouse nest survival,” last year.

The paper looked at the relationship between grass height and sage grouse nesting success and resulted in some controversy. 

Results

“The paper found a relationship between the height of grass at sage grouse nest sites and the nesting success of radio-marked individuals,” Naugle explained. “For two study sites, as the grass height increased, nest success was elevated.”

The study, published in Wildlife Biology, noted, “Findings show grass height is a strong predictor of nest survival inside intact landscapes, and increasing hiding cover can increase nest success.” 

However, it also added, “Positive effects of grass height should be evaluated on other important demographic rates including adult female and chick survival to see if benefits extend beyond what is now known.”

Making claims

Shortly after the release of the paper, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) issued a press release claiming that the study was biological justification to initiate uniform grass height requirements in planning documents. 

“The authors of the paper came together and issued a release saying that we did not agree with the way our findings had been used in the political arena,” Naugle said. “CBD’s messaging is an abuse of science. Twisting the facts to further an agenda only alienates partners and slows defensible policy making.”

Grazing impact

Grazing is but one of many factors influencing grass height, with others including precipitation, soils and temperature, added Beck, a co-author.

“There is a bigger conversation going on in the sage grouse arena about putting grazing restrictions on public lands and possibly policy that would use a uniform residual grass height as the metrics,” Naugle continued. “Our message was that the paper we authored is not the paper that can be used to champion that idea because it did not investigate the question of grazing.”

Naugle clarified that the team’s paper simply studied the relationship between grass height and nest success. 

Walker, author and sage grouse research biologist, said in a press release the study doesn’t address the role of livestock grazing as a factor in sage grouse declines, and it was not designed to answer that question.

“The study did not say overgrazing was a problem or that livestock grazing is contributing to the declines in sage grouse populations,” Walker said. “Maintaining sufficient grass height within sagebrush landscapes is important for nesting sage grouse in the Powder River Basin, but that’s important to ranching operations, too, so there’s a common, long-term goal.”

Range-wide

“CBD’s press release also said we should apply this research across 165 million acres,” Naugle continued. “Even though there is a relationship, there are also 20 other published papers on the subject.” 

Erik Molvar, formerly of CBD, noted during the Jan. 28 meeting, “The findings don’t say anything about grazing, but I’m willing to make the legal inferences and will stand behind those claims with my professional accreditation as a wildlife biologist.”

“The real news is that grass height can have an effect on sage grouse populations in Wyoming, and in previous examinations of the things impacting sage grouse, many things are impacting the grouse,” Molvar continued. “Many folks discounted the possible impact of livestock grazing and other things that affect grass health. At this point, it is becoming obvious that we ought to be looking at livestock grazing and perhaps having standards for grass height.”

Naugle responded that more research is necessary, and he is not willing to extend the grass height data to prescriptive management decisions across the range of the sage grouse. 

“Even though we know relationships at the nest site exist, I don’t think we have done all the heavy lifting on this research,” Naugle said. “More research is needed if we desire a biological response to grass height. What is the time, timing and intensity of grazing that would yield the desired biological response? I don’t think we know that yet.”

Environmental variation

The physical potential of rangelands, as well as a wide array of other factors, must be considered in managing the range, Naugle said, noting that some areas of the range cannot reach those heights even if they are never touched. 

He further noted that in some areas where there is greater precipitation, herbaceous cover provides a higher percentage of the range, whereas in the West, there is more bare ground and sagebrush plays a larger role in the percentage of cover, meaning moret han grass height impacts grouse. 

Naugle continued that environmental gradients across the 11 western states that represent sage grouse habitat vary greatly. 

“We have to understand how to impact the biological response of birds through management and treatments,” he said. 

For example, Naugle noted that their research found a 20 percent increase in grass height resulted in 40 percent increased nest success at one site but over 60 percent nest success at a different location. 

“The massive variability speaks volumes on how one uniform policy is not going to yield the expected outcomes,” he said.

Bob Budd, SGIT chairman, mentioned, “It is all of the components of the habitat that make grouse survival successful or not successful. We are trying to get to the point where we have parameters for what is advantageous to the bird. This is just one piece.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Cheyenne – A Jan. 9 meeting of the Sage Grouse Implementation Team focused on educating the group on new studies and information available related to sage grouse.

“Numerous studies have shown that there can be impacts of noise on vertebrate species,” said Gail Patricelli of the Department of Evolution and Ecology at the University of California Davis. “Studies are necessary to flush out the impact of noise on greater sage grouse.”
In looking at potential impacts from noise on sage grouse, Patricelli noted that their research team developed several recommendations to improve sage grouse habitats further.

Noise explained

“Noise is any background sound in the environment,” explained Patricelli. “For the purpose of our study, we looked at human-introduced noise.”

Particularly, Patricelli’s research team analyzed impacts from energy development on sage grouse habitats.

“Noise impacts might occur from the individual level to the population level,” she continued.

Individual noise impacts could come in the form of temporary or permanent hearing damage, increased predation risk, elevated stress levels and altered behaviors.

Additionally, it might lead to avoidance of otherwise suitable habitat, a masking of communication and reproductive stress, which could, in turn, impact population levels.

“Animals may not be able to be heard, and noise might mask important communication for mating or between hens and chicks,” Patricelli explained. “All of these things may scale up to the population level as habitat loss, reduced survival and productivity and, ultimately, population declines.”

Oil and gas development

“We have been interested in potential impacts of noise from energy development on greater sage grouse,” Patricelli commented. “It emerged as a result of robust studies that energy development is related to declines in greater sage grouse populations, and some studies that implicated noise as a probable cause of the declines.”

Because oil and gas development involves noisy infrastructure, such as generators, drilling rigs, compressor stations and traffic, Patricelli’s team set out to determine whether noise alone impacts grouse.

Research plans

Beginning in 2006 on four leks, Patricelli’s team played drilling noise and road noise recorded from drilling activity in the Pinedale Anticline to sage grouse populations. Each lek was matched with a control lek that did not hear any noise. The leks were otherwise similar in population and location and were otherwise undisturbed. 

In 2007-08, the team increased their research to include eight leks.

They utilized constant noise, designed to replicate drilling rigs, as well as intermittent noise as a result of traffic.

“We broadcast noise 24 hours a day, seven days a week for three breeding seasons,” explained Patricelli, adding that the project also involved use of dummy speakers in control leks. 

Attendance impacts

“We did find a change in annual peak male count from a baseline percentage,” Patricelli commented.

By comparing lek counts to baselines data collected by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and BLM, she said, “Noisy leks had lower male attendance than control leks.”

“Surprisingly, the effect size was much greater for road noise than drilling noise,” Patricelli explained. “We found a difference of 29 percent for drilling noise and 73 percent difference on road noise leks, which was surprising to us.”

In addition, the effects of noise were both immediate and sustained, with impacts being seen the first season.

“We also didn’t see any evidence of the birds habituating, or getting used to the noise,” she added.

In also looking at female lek attendance, they noticed a change in annual peak attendance, but small sample size and baseline data that wasn’t ideal led the group to say that the impact is suggestive, but not conclusive as related to female sage grouse.

“We also asked what happens to the birds that remain behind because not all the birds left,” Patricelli noted. “To address that question, we compared the levels of stress hormones from fecal samples.”

Stress results

In analyzing stress hormones from fecal samples of sage grouse, Patricelli noted that the group also found impacts.

“There is a 17 percent increase in stress hormone levels on the noisy leks, compared to paired control leks,” she said. “Increased fecal corticosteroid indicated increased stress on noisy leks.”

Behavior of birds was also analyzed in the study, and Patricelli’s team noted that males did, in fact, change the timing of their displays based on road noise.

“Birds display 50 percent less often in noise events than expected by chance,” she said, “and they were strutting more often than expected during quiet periods.”

Similar to how humans may pause conversation to allow for passing of a loud vehicle, Patricelli noted that birds were displaying more frequently in quiet times.

“They may do this to reduce masking by strutting in quiet gaps so they can be better heard,” she said, as a possible explanation of the behavior.

Noise levels

Current regulation in non-core areas allows noise levels to exceed ambient levels by 10 decibels, a measure which is problematic for several reasons, according to Patricelli.

The team noted that current standards are too loud, measurement of noise at lek edge is insufficient for protecting sage grouse and approaches do not adequate address traffic.

“Defining ambient noise is very difficult,” said Patricelli of the problem with the current standard. “Outside of core areas, it allows up to 49 decibels to remain in compliance – that is too loud. That level is about as loud as an office or busy residential area.”

In fact, the noise emitted from the speakers used in the study was compliant with current restrictions.

“The actual ambient value is probably between 17 and 23 decibels quieter,” Patricelli said. “That is quite a huge difference in noise levels.”

Additionally, measuring at lek edge is insufficient, as Patricelli noted that nesting and brood rearing areas are not protected and can be plagued by loud noises.

“Areas surrounding leks are critical to supporting lekking and critical to support nesting and brood rearing,” she explained. “If the goal is to limit disruptive activity to sage grouse habitat, then we recommend noise measurements should be at the edge of the critical nesting and brood rearing habitat.”

“We want to acknowledge that noise is only one of many factors that may affect sage grouse populations,” commented Patricelli. “Noise mitigation should be a part of a comprehensive conservation strategy.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..