Saving Sage-grouse by Relocation

Project Shows Relocating the Birds is a Viable and Productive Step Towards Helping Their Population Recover

Moving can be tough, but eventually, we acclimate to new surroundings, and research from Washington State University (WSU) shows it’s the same for sage-grouse too.

A team of scientists successfully moved sage-grouse, a threatened bird species in Washington state, from one area of their range to another to increase their numbers and diversify their gene pool.

The WSU study about the project appears in The Journal of Wildlife Management.

It shows relocating the birds is a viable and productive step towards helping the sage-grouse population recover in the state.

A female sage-grouse flies over the Washington sage steppe with Mount Rainier looming in the background. Photo credit: Tatiana Gettelman
A female sage-grouse flies over the Washington sage steppe with Mount Rainier looming in the background. Photo credit: Tatiana Gettelman

“In the first year after moving the sage-grouse, they moved around a lot and didn’t reproduce as effectively as the native population,” says Kyle Ebenhoch, a researcher at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and WSU graduate student working on the project.

“It took them about a year to settle in and get used to their new surroundings.”

Sage-grouse Needs Adjustment Period

Ebenhoch and a team of researchers investigated how newly introduced sage-grouse survive and reproduce to determine if relocating birds to the area could be a useful way of keeping the species from further decline in Washington.

It turns out, the birds can adjust, though the training center population continues to decline.

“The birds did adjust to their new surroundings, but it didn’t stabilize the population,” he says.

“This can be one tool in our toolbox for helping, but we’ll need more research to find other tools as well.”

Two sage-grouse fly over a field. Photo credit Tatiana Gettelman
Two sage-grouse fly over a field. Photo credit Tatiana Gettelman

As for how the birds adjust, it’s not too far off from a person or family moving to a new state.

“It reminds me of me when I go somewhere new,” says Ebenhoch.

“When I move to a different area, I know where my home and work are. Over time, I start to find a grocery store or a barber. My knowledge and home range expand as I get used to the new place. It’s basically the same for these birds.”

Studying the Birds

The relocated birds were from populations in Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada from 2004–2006 and 2014–2016.

Each bird was wearing a radio-transmitting collar so Ebenhoch and his colleagues can track their movements and see if they survived in their new area.

The researchers collared native sage-grouse each year as a baseline for how much those birds move around and reproduce.

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That comparison produced conclusions about the one-year adjustment period.

The collars have a built-in “mortality signal” so researchers would be notified if a bird died.

This allowed the team to monitor the mortality rate of the native and transplanted birds.

WSU alumni Kyle Ebenhoch holds a native sage-grouse that was caught and fitted with a radio collar for inclusion in his study. Photo credit: Kyle Ebenhoch
WSU alumni Kyle Ebenhoch holds a native sage-grouse that was caught and fitted with a radio collar for inclusion in his study. Photo credit: Kyle Ebenhoch

Relocating Sage-grouse Works

The sage-grouse population in Washington have shrunk and are becoming fragmented because of human-caused agriculture habitat conversion or wildfire.

There are four central and eastern Washington areas where the birds live, but they can’t intermix because these areas are too far away from each other.

This leads to inbreeding and less genetic diversity in each area, potentially increasing diseases and abnormalities, which are important factors that biologists monitor when conserving rare or declining wildlife.

Ebenhoch hopes the research helps policy-makers and other wildlife biologists see that relocation works.

Though the research is specific to Washington sage-grouse, some of the techniques may be suitable for sage-grouse conservation in other states, or even different species.

“This bird is right on the brink of being listed as threatened at the federal level,” says Ebenhoch.

“We showed that relocation, while disruptive in the short term, can work once the birds acclimate to their new surroundings.”

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