Wildlife biologist attempts to reintroduce grouse on Antelope Island

Apr 5 2013 - 11:16pm

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Wildlife biologist Jolene Rose-Greer attaches a tag to the ankle of a Columbian sharp-tailed grouse before releasing it on Antelope Island on Thursday, Apr. 4, 2013. The grouse was trapped in Northern Utah and is part of a project to establish a stable population of the bird on the island. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
A Columbian sharp-tailed grouse walks across grass on Antelope Island on Thursday, Apr. 4, 2013. Biologists began releasing sharp-tailed grouse on the island in 2009 and plan to move another 30 grouse the island in 2013. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Wildlife biologist Jolene Rose-Greer releases a transplanted Columbian sharp-tailed grouse on Antelope Island on Thursday, Apr. 4, 2013. The bird was the fourth one released in 2013 as part of a project to reintroduce sharp-tailed grouse around Utah.  (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Wildlife biologist Jolene Rose-Greer attaches a tag to the ankle of a Columbian sharp-tailed grouse before releasing it on Antelope Island on Thursday, Apr. 4, 2013. The grouse was trapped in Northern Utah and is part of a project to establish a stable population of the bird on the island. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
A Columbian sharp-tailed grouse walks across grass on Antelope Island on Thursday, Apr. 4, 2013. Biologists began releasing sharp-tailed grouse on the island in 2009 and plan to move another 30 grouse the island in 2013. (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)
Wildlife biologist Jolene Rose-Greer releases a transplanted Columbian sharp-tailed grouse on Antelope Island on Thursday, Apr. 4, 2013. The bird was the fourth one released in 2013 as part of a project to reintroduce sharp-tailed grouse around Utah.  (BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner)

ANTELOPE ISLAND -- As Jolene Rose-Greer drives toward the shore of Great Salt Lake, the vodka case in the back seat of her truck starts to shake and "coo." From beneath the label for 80-proof spirits comes the sound of rustling feathers.

Rose-Greer, a wildlife biologist on Antelope Island, is part of a project to introduce Columbian sharp-tailed grouse to the island. Biologists and conservationists are working to re-introduce the birds that were once common around much of the state, but are now found only in parts of Northern Utah.

Starting in 2009, the departments of Wildlife Resources and Natural Resources have been trapping birds from established populations around the state and releasing them on the east shore of Antelope Island. 

"We always wanted to expand the range to historical sites," Rose-Greer said.

Beyond that, she also hopes the project will serve as a tool for educating the public and providing future wildlife-viewing opportunities. 

Slightly smaller than a loaf of bread and speckled in gray and brown, the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse can be difficult to spot most of the year. 

On spring mornings, though, the birds become much more visible as the males fly out onto a mating ground, known as a lek, to perform an intricate ritual. When females are present, the males spread their striped wings wide, crouch low to the ground and stomp quickly across the open field. While doing so, the grouse inflate large purple air sacs on either side of their neck.

Native American tribes, who hunted the grouse for food, also imitated the intricate ritual in traditional dances.

"This is part of the Americas," Rose-Greer said.

As European settlers came into the West, the number of grouse diminished as their grassland habitat was fragmented and converted to agriculture and livestock grazing land. With the loss of habitat and a naturally high mortality rate, the range of sharp-tailed grouse in Utah shrank to pockets in Box Elder, Cache, Morgan, Rich and Summit counties. 

"We do a lot of fragmentation without knowing that we're impacting other species," Rose-Greer said.

Despite the smaller range, local populations were stable enough that biologists from Oregon and Washington came to Utah for help re-introducing birds in their own states. 

As the Utah birds began spreading around the West, Rose-Greer and others on Antelope Island and in the Department of Wildlife Resources put together a plan for expanding the range of sharp-tailed grouse onto the island and around the state. 

Since 2009, Rose-Greer has released around 60 birds along Garden Creek Stream on the east side of the island. 

On this April morning, Rose-Greer scans the grass with her binoculars. After a moment of silence, two males step from a patch of tall grass and begin to dance: wings spread and namesake tails pointing into the air. 

After a brief tally, seven males are spotted out on the lek. It is difficult to know the exact number of birds that are on the island, but with only hens released so far in 2013, Rose-Greer concludes that birds she sees this morning are from past releases.

When the dance is finished, Rose-Greer gets out of her truck with the newest resident on the island. The day before, Spencer Ellison, with the DWR, trapped a female grouse near Golden Spike and brought it down to Antelope Island. 

Researchers transport the birds around the state in grass-lined liquor cases. While these carriers have turned into something of a joke among park staff, Rose-Greer says they work wonderfully. 

The boxes are made of sturdy cardboard, and the compartmentalized sections inside are the perfect fit: not too tight, but not so big that the birds will move and hurt themselves.

Out on the lek, Rose-Greer removes the startled bird from its carrier. 

"You are taught to hold it like a football," she said as the hen flaps its striped wings.

For several moments, she performs a basic exam on the grouse -- checking its age, weight and condition -- before attaching a unique tag around the foot. For this bird, Rose-Greer also attaches a small radio collar around the neck. 

This will allow biologists to follow the hen for up to 18 months after she is released.

When all the measurements are complete, Rose-Greer crouches down in the grass and kneels for a moment with the bird between her knees. 

In a fraction of a second, Rose-Greer releases her grip and the grouse is in the air. It turns away from the lek and flies into the low foothill below Frary Peak where previous sharp-tailed have made their nests. 

Before the day is done, Rose-Greer will release two more grouse on the island. This year's plan calls for the release of up to 30 new birds by early May.

Long term, biologists are trying to establish a sustainable lek -- one with at least 50 birds -- on the island. 

"Seeing them dance on the lek, you just have to experience it," Rose-Greer said. 

She hopes this will become not only a sight for visitor enjoyment and education, but also a source of birds for future re-introduction programs around the state.

 "I've been rooting for them since day one," Rose-Greer said. "I want my son to go see a sharp-tailed dance on a lek."

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