One of the North America’s most exclusive clubs — those actively breeding and rearing greater sage grouse in captivity — met for the first time in Powell last week for a tour of the …
One of the North America’s most exclusive clubs — those actively breeding and rearing greater sage grouse in captivity — met for the first time in Powell last week for a tour of the only sage grouse farm in the U.S.
Currently the club consists of about a dozen scientists and administrators at the Wilder Institute in Canada and Karl Bear, a local wild game bird breeder.
Bear has more than 200 sage grouse at his facility, raised from the collection of wild eggs and subsequent breeding, and is in the second season year of producing eggs in captivity to populate his pens. His brood stock holds about as many grouse as Canada currently has remaining in the wild.
The Wilder Institute has been breeding the species in captivity since 2017 and has a wild release program. The two entities are unaffiliated, yet have been sharing techniques and research “for years,” according to a representative from the institute, as both are attempting to unlock the secrets of rearing, breeding and successfully releasing the iconic western species.
Bear led the team of three scientists, including Conservation Research Associate Millie Coleing, Animal Care Technician Kristina Stephens and Veterinarian Shannon Toy, through his facility on the western border of Powell, including the hatchery, rearing barns, feeding operations and massive flight pens. They discussed strategies as they observed adult sage grouse in their outdoor flight pens filled with birds among the hand-replicated habitat and covered in black fabric netting.
The former Northwest College administrator had visited the institute, which used to be the Calgary Zoo and recently rebranded as the Wilder Institute, in 2017 and has pursued collaboration at every opportunity with experts across the species’ traditional habitat. Sage grouse habitat is found in 11 states in the American West and in two provinces in southern Canada.
“We’re the only two groups working on this right now and they’ve been very helpful,” he said, adding, “I feel a real camaraderie and am comfortable sharing with them.”
While Bear is not a scientist, he has extensive experience in raising and releasing wild birds and has the support of the Wyoming Legislature, which initially voted to give the private business permission to attempt a captive breeding program in 2017 and then extended the period in which he can work on the project by five years in May of 2022. Without the extension, the project would have been forced to cease at the end of last year.
The extension came despite protests from multiple experts who worry the efforts give a false sense of security for the future of the species rather than using all resources to conserve its habitat. They also cited disease, privatization of a game species, the lack of transparency by the private enterprise, and the fact the work is being done outside a scientifically controlled environment such as universities or under the direction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — such as the federal government’s black-footed ferret captive breeding program.
The Wilder Institute — which concentrates on captive breeding and translocations in an effort to fortify wild populations dangerously close to extirpation in the country — has support from the Canadian government entities, but faces some of the same criticism despite having an experienced staff of veterinarians and research biologists.
With few wild sage grouse left in Canada, there is more urgency in attempts to save the species, said Coleing.
“We actually started this project — creating an assurance population — in case we lost sage grouse from the wild so we could have the genetics in captivity,” she said.
There’s already an environmental protection order in place in Canada and government biologists work closely with the Wilder Institute on their captive breeding and release programs.
Coleing defends the project, knowing there are significant hurdles to overcome in actually releasing birds raised in captivity, which includes the individuals, then successfully breeding in the wild, she said.
“That’s the million dollar question,” Coleing said when asked about the institute’s release program. “That’s what this is all about. We’ve cracked the code for raising them in captivity. Now, is this useful to the wild population? Is it really a tool in our toolbox?”
Coleing agrees that habitat is the number one issue facing the species and that the institute’s work is contributing to the conservation effort while habitat restoration occurs.
“Native grasslands are some of the world’s most endangered ecosystems,” she said.
Millions of acres of habitat have been lost due largely to agriculture and urban sprawl and losses have recently been accelerating, with the WWF reporting that more than 2.5 million acres lost from the Great Plains between 2018 and 2019 alone, the World Wildlife Federation said in the 2020 published Plowprint Report.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture claims sagebrush steppe habitat is one of the “most imperiled in the United States.”
At one time, it spread over 240,000 square miles, but today has shrunk to almost half, the department reported.
Bear lists the relative abundance of the species in Wyoming, despite massive drops in populations since the turn of the 20th century, as one of the main reasons to learn how to augment wild populations now, rather than waiting “until the situation gets worse.”
Wyoming has the largest population of greater sage grouse across the range, supporting approximately 37% of the range-wide population, according to the University of Wyoming.
If you momentarily set aside heated debates about the value of their efforts, you find two groups who share similar experiences under the umbrella of attempts to save the species. Sage grouse are unlike commonly raised game species in many ways and only those with hands-on experience fully understand the significant challenges of these experiments.
Both entities face a host of challenges to keep the birds alive in captivity, including fears in both countries about the deadly avian flu epidemic. One common problem is having adequate space to raise the species. While other wild game species, like pheasant, require less personal space, it takes a great deal of room to raise sage grouse. Both the institute and Bear are currently seeking to increase the size of their facilities.
Bear said he recently acquired the sage grouse portion of the Diamond Wings Upland Game Birds operation from previous owner Dennis Brabec (a petroleum engineer and co-owner and general manager of Fiddleback Farms) and has renamed the company Upland Hills, LLC.
He hopes to increase the size of his sage grouse facility and is currently working on a collaboration with Dave Dahlgren, assistant professor at the Department of Wildland Resources at Utah State University on possible release plans. Dahlgren teaches wildlife habitat and ecosystem management and has worked on conservation plans for several species of grouse, including here in Wyoming.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could return the favor after they allowed me to collect the 133 eggs that started it all?” Bear said.
Any plans to release farm-raised birds in Wyoming requires prior approval of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, which was charged with administering the state law governing sage grouse raised in captivity.
Coleing pointed out that the institute and Upland Hills are different in the way they operate.
“Karl’s work is geared more toward farming and we are in a conservation and research facility setting,” she said.
Yet the end goal is the same; learning as much as possible so we can make the best conservation impact for the species, she said.
“We’re all doing our part to help save this amazing bird,” Bear said. “And in doing so, we hope to point out the importance of protecting their habitat.”