Wyoming sage grouse count up for 3rd year in a row

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CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — The number of greater sage grouse in Wyoming continues to grow, at least for now, and recover from a recent sharp decline.

Long-term prospects for the bird, which once numbered in the millions but has seen its habitat dwindle by almost half, remain uncertain, however. No more than half a million sage grouse remain across the birds' range in 11 states.

Biologists and others who fanned out across Wyoming this spring counted more male sage grouse at leks, or sage grouse mating areas, than any year since 2007. The number of males per lek averaged 35.7, up 16 percent from 2015, according to Wyoming Game and Fish Department data released Monday.

The 2015 count was up 66 percent from 2014, which was up 10 percent from 2013. From 2006-2013, the count plummeted almost 60 percent.

State sage grouse coordinator Tom Christiansen cautioned against reading too much into the recent data. Sage grouse can and often will decline sharply from year to year, and biologists consider the decade-by-decade trends for the chicken-sized, ground-dwelling birds more important.

"We don't want to see the peaks to continue getting lower and the bottoms continuing to get lower," Christiansen said Tuesday.

Still, the data appear to support last year's decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service not to protect the greater sage grouse as a threatened or endangered species. The oil and gas industry and others welcomed the announcement, as listing would severely disrupt drilling.

Christiansen credited the wet spring weather without too much snow for helping green up Wyoming's sagebrush basins and giving the chicken-sized, ground-dwelling birds a boost.

"We're a lot like ranchers. We want the moisture. But if it comes at the wrong time, it can be detrimental," he said.

Counts above 40 males per lek were common in the 1960s, the earliest decade of available information. The count sank below 15 in the mid-1990s before recovering to a recent high of 41.7 in 2006.

The greater sage grouse ranges across 11 Western states from California to the Dakotas. Wyoming has more sage grouse than any other state.

This year, Game and Fish employees and others, including volunteers, counted about 42,300 males at almost 90 percent of the nearly 1,900 known leks in Wyoming. They figure on two females for every male, putting Wyoming's population at more than 126,000.

Biologists count the males because the male birds are highly visible as they splay their tail feathers and strut about to entice females.

Wings donated by hunters who kill sage grouse each fall help the Game and Fish Department estimate the birds' reproduction. The estimated reproduction rate topped the 10-year average each of the past two years.


Follow Mead Gruver at https://twitter.com/meadgruver

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