Montana State University

Sage grouse and bugs draw MSU researcher back to central Montana

May 23, 2014 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Four male sage grouse try to attract the lone female sage grouse at left. (Photo by Lorelle Berkeley). Emmett Wester of Livingston sets pitfall traps north of Lavina. (Photo courtesy of Hayes Goosey). These are some of the insects and spiders Hayes Goosey trapped so far in his sage grouse study in central Montana. (Photo courtesy of Hayes Goosey).

Four male sage grouse try to attract the lone female sage grouse at left. (Photo by Lorelle Berkeley).    High-Res Available

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BOZEMAN – Armed with butterfly nets and red Solo cups, Hayes Goosey will soon return to central Montana to capture more insects and spiders that share the range with sage grouse.

The Montana State University researcher will watch for the rattlesnakes that have him wearing gaiters, but he expects to catch beetles, spiders, grasshoppers, crickets, butterflies, moths and ants. Some will fall into the plastic drinking cups he buries up to the rims. Others will get caught up in the nets he sweeps across sage brush and grass.

Goosey is conducting a four-year study of the abundance and diversity of insects and spiders that live in Montana’s sage grouse territory. One of several sage grouse research projects across the western United States, his is a collaboration with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Goosey’s project and other scientific studies have been organized to help analyze the effectiveness of the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI), a federal program administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The goal is to evaluate grazing as a management tool for maintaining or improving sage grouse habitat.

“We’re all looking for ways to keep the sage grouse population healthy so they don’t become included on the Endangered Species List,” Goosey said. “Once a species is on the list, it creates a lot of regulatory burden on agriculture, energy and even sportsmen. Keeping the birds off the list is good for the grouse and good for people using the land.”

As part of the SGI, Montana ranchers can voluntarily sign three-year contracts. The goal is to keep livestock on the landscape with grouse and determine how grazing systems can be modified to improve habitat for grouse, said FWP Research Wildlife Biologist Lorelle Berkeley. Landowners must change the timing of grazing every year, so that grass has a chance to reproduce and set seed in some years. This allows vegetation to recover from grazing and provide more cover for grouse.

“This improves habitat,” Berkeley said. “It has been shown that managed grazing can result in habitat benefits for multiple species.”

More than 108,000 acres in Montana are enrolled in SGI grazing plans for 2014. Another 95,000 acres that used to be enrolled will continue to operate as though they were still enrolled, showing that the landowners believe in the benefits, Berkeley said.

Biologists have a good idea of how many sage grouse live in Montana, but they cannot give an exact population estimate. They do know from monitoring population trends that sage grouse numbers are declining, Berkeley said.  Sage grouse used to live in 11 western states, but they have disappeared from more than 50 percent of their historic range over the past several decades.

“Even though it (population numbers) seems like a basic thing to have, it’s very complicated and not easily attainable, Berkeley said. “Lek counts monitor population trends and can detect changes in populations, but a more intensive research effort is needed to estimate population size. FWP is in the process of designing this type of study with the University of Montana.”

Goosey, who is about to begin his third field season, said he will collect insects and spiders from classic sage grouse habitat– the rolling hills around Roundup and Lewistown where sage brush, juniper trees and different types of bunch grass grow. He mostly collects insects and spiders on private property, but he sometimes works on public land. He generally sets a total of 60 traps (10 traps in six pastures) and makes 600 sweeps per visit with his nets (100 sweeps per pasture). His field season runs from late May through early July when sage grouse are nesting.

His MSU collaborators are Kevin O’Neill, an entomologist in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, Greg Johnson, a veterinary entomologist in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences, and research associate Marni Rolston in animal and range sciences, Goosey said. MSU undergraduate Emmett Wester of Livingston and graduate student Sean McKenzie from San Francisco have helped Hayes with field work in the past.

Goosey will give a full report on his findings when he completes his study. In the meantime, Berkeley  said a preliminary look suggests that sage grouse benefit from SGI grazing systems.  

Goosey added that taller grass provides better cover for the nesting sage grouse and more abundant insects and spiders for sage grouse chicks. The chicks rely upon the insects and spiders the first three or four weeks after hatching.

For more information about the Sage Grouse Initiative, go to http://www.sagegrouseinitiative.com

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu