A four-foot, dual-armed radio antenna pokes skyward from the cab. The bed holds a four-wheeler and a couple of coolers. The sides and windshield are encrusted with dried gumbo.
Inside, Shane Conner, 21, piloted the Chevy 4x4 over ruts and sagebrush with his left hand while spinning the roof-top antenna with his right. He listened for faint beeps that signal a sage grouse is roosted nearby.
Conner, a senior at Montana State University, and Jenny Sika, an MSU graduate student from Michigan, daily searched the prairie bisected by Montana Highway 12 near here for about 60 greater sage grouse hens. Radio-collared this spring, the hens are part of a study to assess possible effects of hunting on two breeding populations in south-central Montana.
Pulling to the side of a gravel road, Conner stopped the engine.
"She's out there," he said, referring to hen No. 434, a dust-colored, three-pound package of feathers and muscle, tucked somewhere in the prairie landscape of greasewood and sagebrush.
Their numbers once robust, sage grouse populations have reportedly been declining throughout their historical ranges since the early 1900s. Just in the last 20 years, scientists have noted a 30 percent drop in abundance and distribution, Sika said. Many believe a sharp decrease in the West's sagebrush habitat, to which the bird is closely linked, is the root cause.
Sika's interested in whether recreational hunting, although not considered a threat, harvests more birds each year than would die naturally. If so, wildlife managers could tighten hunting regulations to help ensure the birds' survival.
For Sika's study--now in its second of three years--Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has closed to hunting a portion of Golden Valley County north of Highway 12. Land to the south is open.
This year Sika found an apparent nest success rate, meaning one or more chicks per nest hatched, of 45 percent. Seventy-three percent of broods made it to 30 days old.
Conner designed his own study through the Undergraduate Scholars Program at MSU to piggy-back with Sika's. He's investigating whether fences and power lines create artificial corridors within the habitat that may make it easier for raptors and other predators to prey on the birds.
The projects brought Sika, Conner and technician Amy Anderson out daily to find the hens and pencil down their exact location. They worked at night counting chicks roosted with hens. They unloaded the four-wheeler and a net when it was time to trap. They sent dead birds to a lab in Wyoming to determine if West Nile virus killed them. They measured and sampled more than 200 sagebrush plots by the end of July. The work was hot, tiring and unpredictable. They loved it.
"It's been amazing, getting out in the field," said Conner, who last summer pounded nails on a million dollar home in his native Flathead Valley. "It baffles my mind to be getting paid [for this]."
The birds don't make it easy, either.
"It's a good thing they're radio-collared," Sika said after walking 20 minutes to glimpse one hen, that quickly flushed from her spot underneath a shrub and headed southwest, "or we'd never find them."
This day Conner and Sika--right arms held high under their telemetry equipment, eyes keeping a casual lookout for rattlesnakes--visually locate about seven study birds. Several more they monitor remotely from atop a ridge. None was emitting a mortality signal that would send the scientists back down onto the prairie to find what's left.
In mid-August Conner went back to Bozeman for classes. Anderson finished at the end of August, leaving Sika to monitor all 60 hens herself through Nov. 1 and the end of upland game bird season.
It's a treat, Sika said, to wake up everyday and think about the birds. And it explains what she's doing out here in a truck that looks as it does.
Annette Trinity-Stevens, (406) 994-5607