Native Nevada birds ‘do their part’ for species | NevadaAppeal.com
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Native Nevada birds ‘do their part’ for species

Jill Lufrano

Like singles on nature’s own reality television, a select number of native Nevada birds have been invited north to romance an isolated colony of their wild counterparts in Washington.

The move could keep the sage grouse – sometimes called prairie chicken or sagehen – off the federal Endangered Species List.

“In the absence of great male competition, any male we send up there is going to have the capability to breed,” said Craig Mortimore, upland game staff biologist for the Nevada Department of Fish and Wildlife.

At a meeting in Las Vegas on Friday, Nevada wildlife commissioners are expected to approve sending about 25 male and female birds to Washington in March or April, in time for breeding season.

Beginning in March, male and female sage grouse congregate at a breeding ground, called a “lek.” Locally, the birds meet in the Virginia Range and Pine Nut Mountains.

The males, weighing up to 7 pounds, and the females, who weigh about 3 pounds, usually meet at the same place year after year. The males perform a peculiar “strutting” dance and make low “gla-glub” noises with inflatable, bright yellow throat pouches in an attempt to woo females.

Nevada biologists have found sage grouse in every county, except Clark. Within a one-hour drive from Carson City in any direction, there are at least 12 known breeding grounds. Sage grouse are now scarce in the Virginia Range, but still found in the Pine Nuts, Mortimore said.

If state wildlife commissioners approve sending Nevada birds north, they will be taken from breeding grounds in Elko or Humboldt counties, said Nevada upland game staff biologist Craig Mortimore.

Wildlife experts throughout the West are concerned about declining numbers of sage grouse, which populate nearly one-third of the country. In Nevada, the sage grouse population – conservatively estimated at about 43,000 – is actually growing.

But with several other Western states, like Washington, asking the federal government to list the bird as threatened or endangered, Nevada officials are concerned about what that might mean for land development.

“It’s a big concern to the state of Nevada and other states because of petitions that have been filed to list the bird as a threatened or endangered species,” said Shawn Espinosa, wildlife staff specialist with the Nevada department.

“If that happens, a lot of land uses will be subject to greater review, and any proposed projects will be subject to review under the (federal) Endangered Species Act,” he said.

Nevada developed a conservation strategy for the bird that revolves around the state’s abundance of sagebrush. It is finalizing a statewide conservation plan.

Gov. Kenny Guinn created the Governor’s Sage Grouse Conservation Team in 2000 to address concerns about how fire, urban sprawl and other disturbances have destroyed or fragmented sage grouse habitat.

The Pine Nut range is home to a number of sage grouse, but suffering from an overgrowth of pinon pines and juniper trees and nearby urbanization in Gardnerville and Douglas County.

“That’s an area of concern,” Espinosa said about the Pine Nut population. “There’s some pinon and juniper reduction conceptually planned, also some meadow restoration. Roads that are currently routed through meadows may be routed around meadows.”

Washington state has two small populations of sage grouse that have been cut off from the rest of the species by the encroachment of homes and cities. The populations are suffering from inbreeding and isolation, causing low genetic diversity.

“Over the past 100 years, through development, we fragmented these populations,” said Dave Hays, endangered species biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We’re concerned abut the inbreeding. Translocating birds to Washington will improve genetic diversity.”

Sending Nevada wildlife to other states and “borrowing” others to boost populations in the state is a common practice. Nevada has received wild turkeys, ruffed grouse, sharp-tailed grouse and a number of big-game species. In turn, the state has donated several species to other states.

Washington’s request is the first time Nevada has been asked to export sage grouse, Mortimore said.

Contact Jill Lufrano at jlufrano@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1217.