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Twist in yearslong effort to save North Dakota sage grouse

BISMARCK (AP) — Wildlife officials who have been transplanting sage grouse from Wyoming to North Dakota since 2017 have adjusted their tactics this summer to try to keep relocated birds from wandering back out of the state in search of better habitat.
The fine-tuning of the nearly million-dollar effort comes after about a decade of planning and implementation, coinciding with other efforts to save the bird that some believe is on the brink of calamity.
But it’s still not known whether the sage grouse population in North Dakota will ever return to a level at which the upland game bird can be hunted.
The answer likely hinges not only on the condition and quantity of sagebrush in a small fraction of the state but also on the politics playing out at the national level involving the longstanding debate of how energy development and the environment can coexist, the Bismarck Tribune reported.
“It’s definitely a hot topic right now,” said Jesse Kolar, upland game management supervisor with the state Game and Fish Department.
But the history of it is a long one.
The sage grouse is a chicken-size bird known for an elaborate courtship ritual in which males “dance” — strut around, puff out their chest and fan their tails — to attract females to mating grounds known as leks.
They’re important to birders, naturalists and hunters, who seek them both for their meat and as trophies to mount.
North Dakota is on the edge of the sage grouse’s Western range. Through the years, the bird’s habitat has shrunk to western Bowman and Slope counties and southern Golden Valley County — essentially the far southwestern corner of the state.
Sage grouse numbers peaked at nearly 550 in the mid-20th century but declined in the decades since, Game and Fish data show. West Nile virus entered the population in the early 2000s and in just a few years decimated it. Hunting, which had dated to the mid-1960s, was shut down in 2008. It remains closed 11 years later.
“It is unlikely we will reopen the sage grouse hunting season in the foreseeable future,” Kolar said.
A spring survey conducted by Game and Fish counted 29 male sage grouse, compared with 27 males the year before. Populations that small are susceptible to being wiped out by an outbreak of disease or drought, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“The count was a little higher than last year, but the population and number of active leks remain far below the population objective of 250 males,” Kolar said.
The number of male sage grouse across the western U.S. bottomed out in 2013 due to loss of habitat and West Nile virus. The Fish and Wildlife Service in 2010 had determined that sage grouse warranted federal protection but that other species were of higher priority, and it pledged to make a final decision on listing the bird as threatened or endangered by the end of 2015.
The agency decided that year that protection was no longer warranted, and it removed the sage grouse as a candidate. A study by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies released in 2015 concluded that the number of male birds had “rebounded significantly.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service cited “an unprecedented conservation partnership across the western United States that has significantly reduced threats to the greater sage grouse across 90% of the species’ breeding habitat.”