Trapping Sage-Grouse: An Experience in Itself
Imagine driving through the dark, snowy desert, the sagebrush peeking out from under the snow, the headlights off, and the only light for navigation is the spotlight expertly wielded by Nathan Muhn, an Idaho Department of Fish & Game field technician, with rock & roll blaring from the speakers taped to the hood of a truck. Last Thursday, that is exactly what the scene was like when we were searching for the elusive Greater Sage-Grouse, the target of a current study in the desert south of Picabo, Idaho.
I joined Nathan, along with two other volunteers, for an evening of trapping Greater Sage-Grouse in order to radio collar the birds. The goal of the study is to radio collar some of the grouse in the desert south of Picabo and to use their GPS locations to study the population’s movements and distribution in relation to the proposed airport site in the area.
So, meeting at 8:30 PM, Nathan described what we would be doing all night – until 4:30 in the morning. We would be driving through the desert on snow-covered roads, searching for Greater Sage-Grouse with a high-powered spotlight. In order to cover the sound of the truck and of us, we have attached speakers blaring music to the front hood of the truck. When we spot a Greater Sage-Grouse, Nathan shines the light on the bird, causing it to freeze and the driver speeds the truck directly at the bird.
This is when it gets exciting! The two netters hop off the truck and sprint alongside, waiting until the truck comes right up to the grouse, then net the Greater Sage-Grouse, ensuring that it doesn’t escape. With the Greater Sage-Grouse captured, we attach a radio collar to the bird and put an identification band on its leg. We ended up catching four Greater Sage-Grouse over the course of the evening: 3 females and one male. They are big birds, and the male was especially large. These birds are built for winter cold; their legs are completely covered in feathers – unlike a chicken’s – and they have interesting little grips on their toes. Pretty cool!
Needless to say, I was cold and tired when I crawled into bed at 5:30 on Friday morning. But, field biology can be fun and fascinating, and these Greater Sage-Grouse are a crucial member of the sagebrush ecosystems here in central Idaho. So, understanding them a little bit better seems like a great idea.