This spring, 40 Montana sage grouse hens will be looking for love in Canada.
On Thursday, the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks commission voted to approve the transplant of 40 sage grouse to Alberta, Canada, as part of an effort to bolster Canadian populations. The 3-1 vote went against a recommendation made by the legislative Environmental Quality Council on Wednesday to ban all such transplants for the next three years.
The FWP agreement with Alberta Environment and Parks was to transplant 40 young hens this year and again in 2018 and 2020. But as a nod to the EQC, Commission Chair Dan Vermillion told Big Game Chief John Vore to change the agreement to require commission approval prior to making the subsequent transplants in 2018 and 2020.
“We have worked hard with Alberta to bring this to fruition. It seems to be working up there, and I think the state of Montana has a lot to gain,” Vermillion said. “I appreciate the EQC taking the time to weigh in on this. I hope they understand that their concerns were heard and that we accommodated their concerns by putting forward a more modest proposal.”
FWP biologists will soon capture 40 young hens from a large population of about 10,000 sage grouse that frequent southern Phillips and Valley counties in eastern Montana. Biologists believe transplants of young hens should be more successful than using older birds becausehens that haven't mated yet should have less loyalty to a particular mating ground or lek.
The hens will be released near Canadian leks within 25 miles of the Montana border in the hopes of building a healthy trans-border population.
FWP made similar transplants in 2010 and 2011. Alberta biologists credit those transplants with helping the Canada population grow to 120 from 40.
Led by Sen. John Brendan, R-Scobey, two-thirds of the EQC wanted no transplants outside the state “until more is known about the implementation of Montana’s Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Program, its efficacy, and its impact on Montana’s sage-grouse population trends.”
The Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Program was created as part of Montana’s effort to put enough conservation efforts in place so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wouldn’t list sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act. Ten other Western states created similar programs.
Some EQC members said if any transplants were to occur, they stay within the state to improve Montana’s populations.
Commissioner Richard Stuker also preferred to keep transplants within the state because he wasn’t confident that Montana’s sage grouse populations were trending up after just one good year. He reminded the commission that they had voted not to transplant big horn sheep out of state while Montana is still trying to establish five new herds.
Vore said transplants weren’t really needed anywhere in the state because Montana’s populations were healthy where their habitat still exists. Montana’s main challenge is restoring the sagebrush habitat that has been destroyed by sod busting.
Jim Brown, Montana Woolgrowers Association attorney, told the commission his organization also opposed the transplants. Brown said FWP needed to coordinate with other agencies, namely the Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Program, before moving ahead. He also asserted that a more intensive environmental study was required because the sage grouse was almost listed under the Endangered Species Act.
FWP Director Jeff Hagener said Sage Grouse Habitat Conservation Program managers told him their responsibility was to oversee habitat and that wildlife management, including transplants, fell under the authority of FWP.
“This is a scientifically rigorous project,” Vermillion said. “I feel pretty confident that this is within the commission authority. If the commission has the authority to authorize hunting seasons, we have the authority to approve a translocation of 40 birds, which is essentially like a hunt.”