A writer and videographer tag along with an OSU doctoral student for a night of sage-grouse field research
By Chris Branam
I’m a passenger in a government-issued white pickup truck somewhere near Joe’s Lake, 20 miles outside of Lakeview in one of Oregon’s least populated counties.
It’s the middle of November and it’s dark. Really dark.
Weeks ago, I had been invited to go with Oregon State University graduate student Andrew Olsen for a night of trapping and tagging greater sage-grouse. Andrew is two years into his doctoral work at OSU, and his dissertation focuses on the effect of western juniper on greater sage-grouse demographics and movements.
Conifer encroachment is considered a threat to sage-grouse populations, and widespread removal of conifers, including western juniper, has become a common conservation practice across much of sage-grouse range. Andrew is documenting the response of sage-grouse to landscape-scale conifer removal near Lakeview.
With its rich history of wildlife conservation, OSU has been a longtime partner in the Sage Grouse Initiative, which covers 11 western states and targets 78 million acres of intact sagebrush harboring the highest number of birds.
On November 9, Andrew emailed the folks who planned to help out during one of his two winter rounds of sage-grouse capture. He ended the missive on a cheerful note: The weather will be chilly (upper teens–20s) at night with the possibility of snow. I’m looking forward to it!
Accompanying me on the trip is Stephen Ward, a photographer/videographer with Extension and Experiment Station Communications. When we get to Lakeview, we meet two experienced sage-grouse trappers: Tim Bowden, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management; and Tyler Dungannon, a field technician on the project.
Conifer encroachment is considered a threat to sage-grouse populations, and widespread removal of conifers, including western juniper, has become a common conservation practice across much of sage-grouse range.
Joe Porter, a BLM wildlife biologist in Lakeview, also joins us. In previous emails, Andrew had warned me and Stephen that there was a chance that we might not find any sage-grouse. He is more confident by the time we stop and get out of the truck.
“I know we’ll find birds,” he tells us. “This is a good spot. We got out here the other day and found birds within 15 minutes.”
It is windier than we expected, and warmer: 42 degrees. No snow tonight.
I adjust my headlamp, a required piece of equipment for this sort of work. Moonless nights are better for catching sage-grouse because the birds are very good at using moonlight to see silhouettes. It helps them avoid predators.
“They see you walking on the horizon and they just flush,” Andrew says. “It’s making us sneakier.”
Seven o’clock. “Game time,” Andrew says. We head out into the darkness in two groups: Tyler and Tim go one way. Andrew, Joe, Stephen, and I go another.
Within 20 yards, my hiking boots slide into a thick mud that had developed due to an all-day rain. Walking quickly becomes a challenge. We’re bushwhacking. It seems as if the only things beneath our feet are mud, rock, and sagebrush.
Andrew deploys another anti-detection tactic: a white-noise sound machine app on his smartphone. It will hide the sound of our steps. After a few hundred yards, Andrew stops. He uses binoculars and a spotlight to scan the landscape. He’s looking for their eyes, which reflect against the light
“We got into a pretty good group of hens here two weeks ago,” Andrew says as he scans. Not tonight, though. We start walking.
The wind is gusting now. My guess is 35 to 40 miles per hour, and it’s almost knocking us off our feet. We stop to look at the ground. It’s grouse poop.
“They’re around,” Andrew says.
A few minutes later, he stops and scans.
“Jackpot,” he says. “There’s a little group of them. They look alert. They probably can’t rest in the wind.”
We turn off our headlamps and creep up through the darkness. Joe grips a net. Andrew shakes his spotlight to disorient the birds. We’re six feet away. There it is. A sage-grouse that’s already been captured, tagged, and fitted with a GPS transmitter.
It starts sleeting. The search continues.
Tim and Tyler call Andrew to report that they found a big group of grouse. We head in that direction and encounter a problem. Our prize is on the other side of a barbed wire fence. We help each other get through one at a time, with no cuts or ripped jackets.
Andrew stops and scans. He sees the group. “There’s a hen on the left and we’ll go for her first,” he says.
I trail about 15 yards behind and come up on Andrew and Joe. They’re both in a squat. Joe holds down the net with a grouse underneath.
“You got one,” I say.
“We got two,” Andrew says, turning his torso so that I see he has a sage-grouse tucked under his arm like a football. “I snagged it on the ground. Veteran move, I guess.”
With two birds in hand, it’s time for Andrew to really go to work. But he can’t hold the bird while he’s processing the other. He turns to me and asks if I could hold it. “Don’t squeeze too hard,” he says.
“Once you get them, they just calm down,” he says. “But they’re not happy. There’s some that will fight you the whole time.”
I take the bird under my arm. It doesn’t squirm or peck. It’s like holding a docile chicken.
Joe holds his bird with both hands like he’s presenting a gift. Andrew starts measuring the bird as Joe spreads its wings.
Suddenly the bird bursts from Joe’s hands and flies away, into the night. They look at me. Because of the weather, our plan was to capture and attach a GPS transmitter to only one bird tonight. It’s 9 o’clock. I’m holding the ticket back to the bunkhouse.
I successfully transfer the bird to Joe, who holds tightly as Andrew pulls out a 22-gram GPS collar.
Moonless nights are better for catching sage-grouse because the birds are very good at using moonlight to see silhouettes. It helps them avoid predators.
“This goes more or less on her rump,” Andrew tells Joe as he holds on to a strap. “Once we’re ready, you’ll roll her a little on her side. Got a decent grip on her?”
It’s a delicate operation. The straps go around the legs and the transmitter sits on her rump above the tail. Andrew trims the excess strap so the collar will sit snug. The harness won’t hinder her ability to fly.
It only takes Andrew about 10 minutes to attach the transmitter. He releases the bird and it flies a few yards before landing. It flaps around for a few seconds and Andrew asks us to take a few steps back to give it room. On the third try the bird flies away.
Andrew goes to check on Tim and Tyler and I pull out a snack. It didn’t feel that cold when we were out there, but my candy bar is frozen. After a few minutes, Andrew returns and asks the group if we want to stay out there or head back to the truck. We look at each other. It’s an easy call—back to the truck.
After we’ve dropped Joe off and get back to the bunkhouse—which is actually a manufactured home in a neighborhood not far from downtown—I ask Andrew to tell me his favorite sage-grouse story.
“One night was particularly epic, where we were tonight,” he says. “There were three of us. I had two netters. Right off the bat we had two and I caught another one. Then we caught three. We had six birds in just a matter of minutes. Each of us had them tucked under our arms.
“We had to say, all right, we have to stop and process these birds. It was an amazing night,” he says.