Annual & Progress Reports

Annual Report and Other Documents


March 2019

Sage-grouse capture is in full swing! We are about to finish up our first no moon trapping phase. Below are some highlight photos:

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Collaring a hen at Brown’s Bench

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Katie holding a hen at Brown’s Bench

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Spotlighting at Big Butte

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First hen at Big Butte!

January 2018

As we hire technicians and gear up for the coming field season, we are also adapting to changing conditions in the project area.  After a range fire burned part of our study pastures at Big Butte last summer, we have been meeting with BLM and permittees about adding adjacent allotments to replace treatment sites lost to the fire.

In early January, University of Idaho’s Karen Launchbaugh gave Grouse & Grazing Project presentations at Idaho Range Livestock meetings at multiple locations across southern Idaho.  It was an opportunity to provide a progress report on the project, talk about grazing’s role in managing wildfire and invasive species, and acknowledge the BLM, permittees and other partners in this long-term study.

June 2017 Progress Report

All in all, the project continues to go very well, in spite of some challenges. We did not collar as many hens as we had hoped this spring, due to snow and access issues. Even so, we collared more hens than last year at 4 of our 5 study sites. We did not find as many nests as usual due to weather-caused delays in getting access to sites to deploy collars as early as we would have liked. And we have seen higher rates of mortality this year, including some instances of a hen and her entire brood both being predated immediately after the eggs hatched. The key to the success of the study is to have sufficient sample sizes to be able to compare grazing treatments. We need to find ways to maximize our sample sizes within the 4 treatments for effective comparisons.

Fencing Update: We are installing considerably more electric fence this year. We are dividing most pastures in half so that permittees can graze one half while we implement the grazing treatments on the other half. In addition to the expense of electric fence materials, it is very labor intensive to get all that electric fence put up and taken down, and we are grateful to volunteers from BLM and IDFG for their help with some of the fence deployments.

Veg Plot Sampling: The crews have been doing an excellent job collecting the first round of vegetation data before nesting season ends. We are a little bit behind, so we may omit dependent random plots at some nests, and we won’t get all of the independent random plots done. By late June, crews will send the veg data collected to date to Courtney and Karen to summarize. The second round of veg plot data collection will begin in mid- to late July.

May 2017 Progress Report

Nesting phenology appears to be delayed a bit this year: Only 5 broods hatched to date, which is much fewer than last year at this time. We saw few hens on leks, especially at Jim Sage, and located fewer nests in proportion to the number of collared hens.

Crews observing leks have reported a high rate of predator flushes of sage-grouse from leks. We have not seen anything like this winter at least since the new millennium, and the harsh winter has been followed by a cold, windy spring.

The mortality rate of collared hens has been higher than the past few years. We don’t have the people power to investigate each mortality immediately while the crews are also trapping full-time, so it’s hard to know whether mortalities are the result of predation or some other cause. At Jim Sage and Sheep Creek, no hens collared this year have died, but crews have recovered mortalities of hens collared in 2015/2016. In contrast, we’ve had >4 hens collared in 2017 that have died at the other 3 sites.

There is a new feedlot south of Malta that might be attracting more ravens in the vicinity of Jim Sage. We are doing point-count surveys on all pastures to estimate density of other bird species and these data will help us determine whether raven density has increased across years or differs among our 5 study sites and could be correlated to nesting success and nesting propensity.

Status at our 5 study sites as of 18 May 2017:
Sheep Creek
: We are tracking 22 hens and have located 18 nests: 10 failed, 5 active, and 3 hatched, but 1 of the hens was depredated immediately, so her brood perished. We have 2 hens with live broods.

Brown’s Bench:  Tracking ~20 hens and 13 nests: 9 failed, 3 active, and 2 hatched; 1 of those broods did not survive. Eleven collared hens have died, including 5 of the hens collared in 2017.

Big Butte: Had 33 collared hens (26 are still in the area and accounted for) and located 7 nests: 2 failed, 5 active, none hatched yet.  Seven of the hens collared in 2017 have died.

Jim Sage: Collared 19 birds and located 10 nests: 4 failed, 6 active, none have hatched yet.

Pahsimeroi: Collared ~20 hens and located 15 nests: 8 failed, 7 active, and none have hatched yet. Four of the hens collared in 2017 have died.

March 2017 Progress Report

We began trapping hens at Brown’s Bench in early February. As of mid-March, we have captured 26 hens and have 4 collars left to deploy. In addition, 11 birds collared in 2015 and 2016 have returned. We are beginning to triangulate hens with the expectation that they will initiate nesting soon.

We have been trapping at Jim Sage since mid-February, with 3 hens collared so far. We have had a difficult time locating hens in the study pastures, but we have 16 birds that returned from 2015/2016.

We have had better success at Sheep Creek, where we have collared 17 hens since mid-February. We have also been scouting leks for potential rocket net deployment. Thus far, only 2 collared hens have returned from 2016.

As of mid-March, roads were still too snowy and muddy for us to access Big Butte and Pahsimeroi study sites, but we expect to begin trapping there by late March.

Results of the 2016 Field Season

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Grouse & Grazing Project study sites in southern Idaho.

In February and March of 2016, we collared 117 female sage grouse across five sites, as we added Pahsimeroi Valley (in Custer and Lemhi Counties) to the four existing study sites. In addition, 78 hens that had been captured the two previous years were still alive and had active radio-transmitter collars. That brought the total to 195 hens tracked in 2016; 77% were adults and 23% were yearlings.

We found 150 nests across all five sites in 2016, including nests located inside and outside the experimental pastures where we are manipulating grazing. Of the 150 nests we located, 137 were initial nest attempts and 13 were re-nest attempts.

Nest Success and Chick Survival

Apparent nest success was slightly lower in 2016 compared to 2015 except at Sheep Creek in Owyhee County, where nest success was 33% in both years. The percentage of nests where chicks hatched successfully ranged from 23% at Pahsimeroi to 38% at Brown’s Bench.

After clutches hatched, we conducted 125 brood flush surveys and 20 spotlight surveys on 30 different sage-grouse hens. Brood survival to 42 days of age ranged from a high of 73% at Browns Bench to a low of 20% at Sheep Creek.

We documented 20 mortalities among radio-collared birds during the 2016 field season. Sixteen were adults and 4 were yearlings.

Vegetation Measurements

We took vegetation measurements at nest sites, nest-patch plots near nests, and random plots across the pasture to document the plant species and amount of cover in areas used by grouse compared to random areas. Vegetation measurements taken from mid-April to early July revealed differences between nest sites and random sites throughout the pastures. Nest sites had more sagebrush cover but less total shrub cover than random sites. Forty percent of nests were under Wyoming big sagebrush, with another 22% located under low sage and 12% under basin big sage.

Successful nests had more sagebrush cover and more total shrub cover than failed nests. Shrubs selected by nesting sage-grouse were taller than those at random plots. Hens tended to nest under sagebrush ranging from 16 to 30 inches (40-76 cm) tall, which is consistent with numerous other sage-grouse studies.

Grass Height

Grass height is an aspect of sage-grouse habitat that is commonly measured, and grazing practices commonly prescribe maintaining grass height exceeding 7 inches. In our study, grass heights varied greatly among study sites, even within grass species. The amount of ground covered by grasses was higher at nests sites compared to random sites, and grass height generally exceeded the seven inches typically recommended for grouse nesting habitat.

Grazing Intensity

We used three methods to estimate the percent utilization across the experimental pastures: ocular method, landscape appearance, and percent height reduction.

Utilization varied spatially within individual pastures, which highlights the need for spatially explicit methods of mapping utilization. By accounting for and mapping this spatial variation, we will be able to investigate how utilization patterns may affect nest site selection of sage-grouse within our study pastures.

Certain methods of measuring utilization may be more beneficial for answering particular questions, and further investigation into the most appropriate method is warranted. It will be essential to select the most appropriate method(s) of assessing utilization in order to ascertain how changes in spring grazing affect greater sage-grouse, habitat and wildfire.

Insect Abundance

In the first two weeks after hatching, sage-grouse chicks depend on a high-protein diet. To determine what’s on the menu, we used sweep nets, pitfall traps and ant mound surveys to collect and record the species and biomass of arthropods present. Through the 2015 and 2016 field seasons, crews counted and identified more than 25,000 insects. About 89% of that biomass was made up of grasshoppers and crickets, ants and bees, and beetles. These are also the arthropods most common in the diets of sage-grouse chicks.

 Next Steps

For the 2017 field season, we plan to study our existing five research sites and hope to add one or two more study sites as partners and funding become available. We began implementing  4 grazing treatments on  pastures at two of our study sites: 1) spring-only grazed in odd years, 2) spring-only grazed in even years, 3) no grazing, and 4) alternating years of spring-only grazed and non-spring grazed. We define spring grazing as March 1 through June 15.

Since the beginning of our study, we have conducted vegetation sampling at 1,756 plots (breeding and post-breeding season surveys combined) and taken utilization measurements at 8,601 unique locations. With this continued effort and large sample size, we will be able to make powerful inference regarding the specific effects of spring cattle grazing on sage-grouse populations and habitat in Idaho, and these results will be relevant throughout the species’ range.

June 2016 Progress Report

In June, we completed several activities including intensively tracking sage-grouse to find sage grouse nests, our ‘after hatch’ vegetation measurements at nests and random locations (all but for one active nest), insect sampling (sweep netting, pitfall traps, and ant mound surveys), and avian point-count surveys.  We continued intensively tracking hens (those who successfully hatched a clutch of eggs), brood survey data collection, brood location vegetation measurements, and less intensively tracking hens without hatched nests.  Because of the reduction in workload, we’ve reduced our field staff for the month of June.

In July, we plan on continuing to intensively track hens with hatched nests, conduct brood surveys, less intensively track hens without hatched nests, initiate our ‘utilization’ vegetation measurements, initiate our utilization mapping, continue our brood location vegetation measurements, and proof data.  We plan to finish field data collection for the 2016 field season in mid-August.  Below is a summary from each of our 5 field sites.

Brown’s Bench

We deployed 25 new radio collars in 2016.  In addition, 25 radio-marked hens whose collars were deployed in past years were confirmed alive at Brown’s Bench in March (at the outset of the 2016 field season).  Since March, we’ve documented 8 hen mortalities (8 of the 50 radio-marked hens).  One predator left a head and crop behind so we took advantage of this opportunity and had Roger Rosentreter, a botanist, examine the crop contents.  Roger found it contained ~20 ants, ~70% yellow flower parts (Crepis spp. and possibly Microseris spp.), ~9% leaf tissue (likely Crepis spp.), and 1% other material.  We are locating hens with hatched nests every 2-3 days and hens without hatched nests once per week.  We located 34 nests at the Brown’s Bench study site in 2016 and overall apparent nesting success was 38% (Table 1).  We completed our ‘after hatch’ vegetation sampling and insect sampling.  We took down the turbo tape and chargers for the temporary electric fence in the Corral Creek pasture.  The cattle were moved out of the Browns Creek pasture recently and the temporary electric fence successfully kept cattle out of this pasture (our ‘no grazing’ treatment).

Jim Sage

We deployed 25 new radio collars in 2016.  In addition, 19 radio-marked hens whose collars were deployed in past years were confirmed alive at Jim Sage in March (at the outset of the 2016 field season).  Since March, we’ve documented 4 hen mortalities (4 of 44 radio-marked hens); one of these was found in a Golden Eagle nest.  We are locating hens with hatched nests every 2-3 days and hens without hatched nests once per week.  We’ve located 21 nests at the Jim Sage study site (one nest was still active as of 28 June) and overall apparent nesting success was 35% (Table 1).  Cattle were removed from the Kane Springs pasture on approximately 7 June and the temporary electric fence successfully kept cattle in the pasture.  We will leave the temporary electric fence deployed as a neighboring, non-experimental pasture is scheduled to be grazed in summer and fall and, hence, cattle will need to be kept out of the Kane Springs pasture.

Big Butte

We deployed 20 new radio collars in 2016.  In addition, 15 radio-marked hens whose collars were deployed in 2015 were confirmed alive in March (at the outset of the 2016 field season).  Since March, we’ve documented 7 hen mortalities (7 of 35 radio-marked hens).  One mortality was likely due to a fence collision as it was found intact and within 20 m of a barbed-wire fence.  We recovered the carcass and had Roger Rosentreter, a botanist, examine the crop contents.  It contained approximately 90% ant parts and 10% vegetation.  We are locating hens with hatched nests every 2-3 days and hens without hatched nests once per week.  We located 28 nests at the Big Butte study site in 2016 and overall apparent nesting success was 29% (Table 1).  We completed our ‘after hatch’ vegetation and insect data collection.

Sheep Creek

We deployed 11 new radio collars in 2016.  In addition, 15 radio-marked hens whose collars were deployed in 2015 were confirmed alive in March (at the outset of the 2016 field season).  Since March, we’ve documented 2 hen mortalities (2 of 26 radio-collared hens).  We located hens with hatched nests every 2-3 days and hens without hatched nests once per week.  We located 15 nests at the Sheep Creek study site in 2016 and overall apparent nesting success was 33% (Table 1).  We completed our ‘after hatch’ vegetation and insect data collection.

Pahsimeroi

We had a total of 52 nests in the Pahsimeroi.  Of those, 12 hatched for a success rate of 23%.  There are another 14 collared birds that have either dropped a collar (1) or are in unknown status (13) and another 4 birds have been depredated since collaring. Our first nest hatched on May 1st with the last one hatching on June 21st with the majority of nests hatching the 2nd and 3rd weeks of May.  Ongoing work includes brood counts, analyzing nest assessments, and measuring grazing intensity.

Partners and Collaborators:

  • Idaho Bureau of Land Management
  • Jim Sage, Browns Bench, Big Butte, and Sheep Creek Permittees
  • Idaho Department of Fish and Game
  • Idaho Office of Species Conservation
  • Idaho Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit
  • University of Idaho Rangeland Center
  • USGS Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center
  • Idaho Cattle Association
  • Public Lands Council
  • Idaho Conservation League
  • Idaho Rangeland Resources Commission
  • Idaho Sage-grouse Advisory Committee
Table1_June2016