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Shane Conner Undergraduate Shane Conner of Whitefish uses radio telemetry to find a sage grouse hen roosting in the study area near Lavina, Mont. (photo Annette Trinity-Stevens)

Students tune radio to sage grouse

By Annette Trinity-Stevens

This truck gets looks. 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 rooftop antenna with his right. He listened for faint beeps that signaled a sage grouse was 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 Lavina in northcentral Montana last summer for about 60 greater sage grouse hens. Radio-collared last 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.

Just in the last 20 years, scientists have noted a 30 percent drop in abundance and distribution of sage grouse.

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.

Jenny Sika Jenny Sika stands near one of two field vehicles used to track greater sage grouse hens in northcentral Montana.
(photo Annette Trinity-Stevens)

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. Seventythree 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 pounded nails on a million-dollar home in his native Flathead Valley the summer before. "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, which quickly flushed from her spot underneath a shrub and headed southwest, "or we'd never find them."

One August day Conner and Sika—right arms held high under their telemetry equipment, eyes keeping a casual lookout for rattlesnakes— visually located about seven study birds. Several more they monitored remotely from atop a ridge. None was emitting a mortality signal that would have sent the scientists back down onto the prairie to find what was 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 was a treat, Sika said, to wake up everyday and think about the birds. And it explained what she was doing out here in a truck that looked as it did.

photo Annette Trinity-Stevens Sage Grouse

Cactus and all-nighters don't discourage "lucky" researcher

More students like Shane Conner are doing their own research each year at MSU through initiatives like the Undergraduate Scholars Program and Core 2.0.

The USP pays students $1,500 each semester to plan and implement their own research projects in the arts, sciences or humanities. Core 2.0, which began this fall, promises a hands-on research project for each student in his or her sophomore year. A senior in ecology, Conner designed a study on greater sage grouse and did the research in central Montana while working as a field technician for graduate student Jenny Sika. He got paid with grant funds from Sika's project in addition to his USP funds.

"It's a nice way to teach students in a hands-on experience that science is an ongoing adventure," said Jay Rotella, an MSU ecology professor and Conner's research advisor. "You don't just do one experiment, at least not in ecology, and figure you're done."

Captivated by a wildlife habitat class at Flathead Valley Community College, Conner, a Whitefish native, said he "fell in love with the whole scene of wildlife."

He transferred to MSU and helped with a wolf research project last year. Sika hired him last summer because she recognized a go-getter with field experience and a strong work ethic.

One summer day on the central Montana prairie, Conner looked every bit the professional field biologist— from the squint lines around his eyes to the way he leaned over the dashboard to get a better look at a rabbit lying prone in the center of the road. (It's a biologist's instinct to observe roadkill, he explained.)

He's stepped over rattlesnakes, pulled prairie cactus thorns from his flesh, netted skittish sage grouse hens and watched the sun rise after a night of tracking and counting chicks.

Another wildlife project likely awaits this young man who marks his days by some other means than a clock.

"My roommates tell me I'm lucky to have discovered my passion," he said.

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