Montana/Dakotas

<<Back to Fall/Winter 2010 Steward

Predawn Hours, GPS Transmitters, and Sage Grouse Research

 by Craig Flentie, Central Montana District 

student holding sage grouse 

Grad student Rebecca Smith and her subject both seem to be enjoying Smith's research project.
Photo by Vinita Shea
transmitter on sage grouse

Smith attaches a camoflauged GPS transmitter to the back of a 
greater sage-grouse.
Photo by Vinita Shea

A unique graduate level research project being conducted near Glasgow, Montana, promises to provide much needed information about the preferred travel corridors, migrating patterns and habitat associations of greater sage grouse.
 
Rebecca Smith (a wildlife biology Student Career Experience Program student with the BLM’s Glasgow Field Office) is conducting the research as she pursues a MS degree in wildlife biology. Rebecca graduated last spring with a BS in wildlife biology from the University of Montana (UM) and is now working toward a MS in wildlife biology, again with the UM.
 
The group of sage grouse Smith is using in her research winters south of the Milk River in Valley County, and then migrates in the spring to brood rearing grounds in north Valley County, Montana, and the eastern portion of the Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan. This is the longest known sage grouse migration route used by sage grouse (about 120 km, + - 75 miles).
 
There’s a great deal of information available about the habitats sage grouse need, but relatively little is known about the migration corridors sage grouse use to move from one preferred habitat to another. What features or objects do sage grouse try to avoid on their flight paths?  What flight corridors do sage grouse consistently use? 
 
Rebecca’s research project is designed to answer those questions which in turn, will help managers make land use decisions that do not cut off movement corridors used by sage grouse and other migratory animals. This research project will also help determine more precisely when this group of sage grouse begins their northward and southward migration flights.
 
The end results of this research will be a better understanding how sage grouse use the landscape between summering and wintering grounds, and land use decisions that will help maintain important movement corridors for grouse.
 
This spring Rebecca and several assistants attached solar powered GPS transmitters to 24 sage grouse (19 female and 5 males). Each camouflaged unit is about two inches long, is mounted on the grouse’s lower back and held in place by straps under the bird’s legs.   The GPS units are programmed to record the grouse’s location four times per day, without the challenges and costs associated with actively following the birds (as required by VHF transmitters). The recorded locations are then converted to a map format that shows precisely where each grouse is spending time.
 
While this research is purpose driven, most of the field work (trapping grouse, attaching GPS units, and releasing the birds) has been very enjoyable. Smith finds the predawn hours before trapping operations on the prairie of eastern Montana to be especially rewarding. She also appreciates the help she has received with her research from several colleagues with the BLM, the UM, and the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
 
Many stakeholders across the west are familiar with the problems faced by sage grouse: habitat fragmentation (as man continues to build, till and develop); declining numbers on a national basis; and several years ago West Nile virus surfaced as a serious concern for sage grouse. As a result of these issues, greater sage grouse were recently declared warranted, but precluded from listing as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act by the need to complete listing actions of higher priority.
 
In the face of these challenges it’s critical that land managers make the best decisions possible concerning sage grouse, and those decisions depend upon the best information available. 
 
Next spring Smith’s research project is designed to have 40 sage grouse carrying GPS units. Over the course of the next two years, this project will begin connecting the dots among what we know about sage grouse today, and what we need to know tomorrow.