Private endeavor to raise sage grouse in captivity hits snag

Meeteetse Conservation District Manager Steffen Cornell wends his way through the sagebrush near a lek north of Thermopolis, looking for sage grouse nests. While the effort didn’t turn up any viable eggs for an attempt to raise the species in captivity, the experience could help a Powell game bird farm’s attempt to raise the species in coming years. Meeteetse Conservation District Manager Steffen Cornell points the way before a team of egg hunters, including Karl Bear (right) and Chloe Winkler (center), head into the desert in search of nests. Photos by Mark Davis, Powell Tribune.

POWELL — On the final day of a month-long hunt for greater sage grouse eggs, Karl Bear approached his team with a noticeable limp. Yet, as he neared their trucks on a dusty, double-track road, Bear had a broad smile on his sweat-soaked face. 

The manager of Diamond Wings Upland Game Birds, a Powell bird farm, knew this was the end. The team had been unable to find a single nest of viable eggs after more than 100 miles of searching under many thousands of sagebrush in the high desert that’s home to the species. 

Multiple times, the team found camouflaged grouse nests — only to discover that predators had gotten there first. 

Bear knew there would be no eggs in the incubators this year, no chicks to rear and no chance to raise a brood stock in captivity. 

All the efforts, including tens of thousands of dollars, years of planning, legislative approval, multiple inspections and meetings with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the blood and sweat of the search team as they marched through May were seemingly in vain this year. 

Yet Bear looked happy, his smile growing larger as he neared his team. He was thankful for the experience. 

“This was not a failure in any way,” Bear said. 

The private effort to collect wild eggs and raise sage grouse in captivity is controversial, with several conservation groups and scientists panning the idea as going in the wrong direction for protecting the species. 

However, Diamond Wings owner Dennis Brabec, a rancher and oilman, hopes that the lessons learned now can someday help save the imperiled species from being listed under the Endangered Species Act. 

“We learned a lot, though we weren’t successful,” Brabec said. 

Bear added, “We were able to live it. We were able to go in among the birds and experience it. ... And it gave us a huge leg up for next year.” 

Bear has a way of finding the silver lining in life’s disappointments. Shortly after having his left knee replaced, he headed out into the seemingly endless tracts of sagebrush looking for a needle in a haystack. 

“It’s definitely been a challenge on this knee — that’s for sure,” he said. “But we pushed on.” 

After their intricate mating ritual of spring, sage grouse hens nest hidden in cover within 5 miles of the lek, Bear said. That meant the crews — with the help of bird dogs and 

a drone armed with thermal imaging technology — were tasked with finding well-camouflaged nests under brush in a 25-square-mile area for each location they searched. Once the team searched a section, they couldn’t return — part of state regulations intended to keep the team from over-stressing nesting sage grouse hens. 

Every day meant exploring a new area, and most involved long drives from Powell. 

Bear and teams of dog trainers, University of Wyoming students, scientists and volunteers rose well before sunrise and assembled at various parking lots at the crack of dawn. They moved quickly to meet Game and Fish escorts before arriving at pre-approved sites. Two Game and Fish employees walked with the teams on each search to ensure all regulations were observed and to report progress. The crew walked between 8 and 12 miles a day for a dozen days in May. 

Brabec, Diamond Wings’ 72-year-old owner, went on six of the searches. 

“It may be in the desert, but it’s not flat ground,” he said. “You are constantly zigging and zagging, head into coulees and stepping over sage brush.” 

They searched through unusual heat in rattlesnake territory, working through physical and emotional exhaustion while looking for up to 250 wild eggs. 

On the last day, the team would have been content to find one nest with eggs. You can’t raise a brood stock with chicks from the same nest, but each step in the right direction provides an opportunity to learn more about a process that has never been tried in the U.S. 

There were some hiccups. 

May was warmer than anticipated, making it hard for the drone’s sensors to pick up the heat signature of a hen on a nest. In initial testing, the drone successfully located pheasants, but that was earlier this spring and the ground was cool. 

Meeteetse Conservation District Manager Steffen Cornell performed drone missions at night and in the early morning hours in the attempt to find nests. 

Despite working through many of the nights, Cornell joined the team for the long walks the following days. They saw many sage grouse. They also found nests, but all had been raided by ravens, coyotes, badgers and snakes prior to their arrival. 

In all, the team discovered 12 nests destroyed by predators. 

“It was a black cloud that followed us,” Brabec said. “It’s a big concern of ours.” 

“Nobody has gone out and looked for nests like we have,” he added, saying ravens were a bigger problem than the Diamond Wings-led team previously thought. 

Populations of the intelligent predator — which can eat both eggs and small chicks — have increased an estimated 400% in the West over the last 40 years, said Leslie Schreiber, Game and Fish sage grouse program manager. 

“It’s when any of those populations balloon up that sage grouse can be impacted by those predators that are kind of unnaturally increasing,” Schreiber said. 

The team also found an ecosystem suffering from the infestation of cheatgrass. 

“You hear about it, but to see it, there’s areas that it’s just, oh my God, it’s just everywhere,” Bear said. 

More than 50 million acres of sagebrush ecosystem across the West is now infested with cheatgrass. In areas so far spared from the infestation, Bear said that the team always saw more birds. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates as many as 16 million sage grouse once inhabited 13 western states and three Canadian provinces. 

Now, as populations have dwindled 66% since the 1960s — and another 40% in the past four years — there are only about 300,000 left in the U.S. and less than 100 living in the wild in Canada. 

“We are very close to an [Endangered Species Act] listing under an honest administration,” said Brian Rutledge, director of the National Audubon Society’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative. 

In 2017, the Wyoming Legislature passed a controversial law allowing private game farms to apply to be certified by the Game and Fish Department to raise the sage grouse in captivity. 

Diamond Wings, the largest game bird farm in the state, was the only company to apply. 

The Powell business was twice certified, in 2018 and 2019, but backed out both years due to the overwhelming cost of the project and timing that required farm owners to invest tens of thousands prior to knowing if they would even be allowed to look for eggs. 

Last year, Casper energy entrepreneur and former Diamond Wings owner Diemer True founded a nonprofit organization, the Western States Sage Grouse Recovery Foundation, to raise money for the experiment. 

Through donations, the company was able to renovate Diamond Wings’ facilities and purchase new equipment for raising grouse. It wasn’t the only cost, either: A large section of the farm was set aside for sage grouse production, reducing the number of birds it could raise by 15,000. 

Over the years, the farm has raised pheasants, Hungarian partridges, chukar partridges, pure French red-legged partridges, and bobwhite, red and California valley quail. 

Bear is solely responsible for rearing the species, and he has been able to raise difficult birds successfully where others have failed. That experience is vital, because if finding nests seems hard, Bear said the next test will be even harder: Hatching and raising chicks. “We feel this experience … will be an asset in helping us better understand the greater sage grouse,” he said. 

Only one entity has ever attempted to raise greater sage grouse: the Calgary Zoo. They reportedly started with an initial $5 million budget, backed by the Canadian government. 

Diamond Wings is on its own. In the month of May alone, the search effort cost more than $25,000, Brabec said, while costs to renovate the Powell facility totaled more than $100,000, even before the 2020 inspections.

Failing to find eggs this spring will set the privately run experiment back. Diamond Wings will be forced to keep the flight pens earmarked for sage grouse empty for a full year before attempting to certify again. 

The deadline to apply is Dec. 31. The process should be easier in the future, as all parties now know what to expect, but there is no guarantee of recertification, said Scott Edberg, the Game and Fish Department’s deputy chief of wildlife. 

There’s also no guarantee there will be more money for future attempts. 

While True is satisfied with the team’s progress, times have changed — including the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic — and donations may be harder to come by this time around. 

“We’re hopeful to continue next year, but I don’t think we can say much more than that, because I have to go talk to our donors,” True said. 

“Part of the goal of the foundation is to increase the body of knowledge of both research and applied science; and I think we’ve done that,” he added. “We’re disappointed not to get eggs, we are multi-years into this, but what we have learned is gonna stand us in good stead and in years ahead.” 

Meeteetse Conservation District Board Member Tim Morrison said he hopes the district will continue to support the project. 

“I can’t speak for the board, just for myself, but I understood that there would be a learning curve,” Morrison said. 

His hope is the use of new technology, matched with efforts to raise sage grouse in captivity, will result in an opportunity to augment wild populations in need with farm-raised birds. He hopes the drone technology will be refined and it will become a valuable tool for conservation of the species in the future. 

District Manager Cornell, an FAA-licensed pilot, has been working with the equipment to refine possible uses in sage grouse conservation — and Bear hopes to add the use of radio telemetry to next year’s efforts. 

It is labor intensive, requiring capturing grouse and installing transmitters. Though it’s expensive for the equipment and labor, if successful, it would allow teams to zero in on nests at the start of incubation.

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