Fall has firmly established itself here in Bishop—temperatures have plummeted at night, the White Mountains are finally living up to their name, and the aspens and cottonwoods down in the Valley seem to be in a competition for most dramatic display of fall color. The falling temperatures and snowfall have effectively ended our seed collecting season and have brought an end to most of the vegetation monitoring projects we had been running throughout the summer and early fall, and as a result much of my time lately has been split between GIS projects in the office and using radio telemetry to track greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus).
Sage grouse monitoring is a year-round project that can take many forms depending on the time of year. In the spring, sage grouse congregate in leks (where males perform elaborate courtship displays to attract females)—providing an important opportunity for the field office to count the gathered birds and estimate the size of the local population. Capturing individuals and fitting them with radio collars allows us to track the birds throughout the year and study their movement patterns and what types of habitat they use depending on their seasonal needs. Tracking collared females to their nests gives us a sense of not only the location of the nests but also provides us with an opportunity to survey the local vegetation and try to piece together what makes for an ideal nest site (e.g. lots of brush cover and no nearby trees or power lines). As the year goes on, the birds continue to move around as the needs of their chicks and eventually falling temperatures dictate where they need to go to find food. As we move farther into fall, more birds will be captured and collared to establish a new cohort to track throughout the coming year.
Tracking sage grouse has proven more challenging than I expected. The basics of radio telemetry aren’t particularly complicated, but out in the field things get more complicated: rough terrain can make the signal seem to appear or disappear depending on your position relative to the grouse’s, and even small changes in how deep into a bush the bird is can make the signal vary. There are some days where the phrase “wild goose grouse chase” seems particularly appropriate—but that only makes getting in close enough to actually see the grouse all the more satisfying.
Greater sage grouse are especially relevant right now, because as of this past Monday the US Fish and Wildlife Service officially declared the “Bi-State” population (found throughout southeastern California and over the border into Nevada) federally threatened under the Endangered Species Act. This is going to mean a lot of changes moving forward for our field office: the Bishop field office has played a large role in managing this population for a while, but with the federal designation there are other agencies and groups that will have a larger role in the future. It also means that there will be changes in land use regulations for areas throughout the region, which is always a difficult adjustment but will likely be especially complicated following so closely on the heels of the listing of three amphibian species in the region. Watching these listings unfold has been a really good lesson in the importance of communicating effectively with the public: if we as land managers and scientists cannot adequately explain why certain decisions have been made and what factors contributed to those decisions, let alone how those decisions will play out locally, conservation efforts on public lands will always be an uphill battle—which only hurts everyone in the long run.