While the notion of stocking pen-raised birds to help dwindling sage grouse populations may seem like a good idea, the facts tell a completely different story
On leks across the West, Greater Sage-Grouse will soon begin their famous, age-old dance. Males will strut through the sagebrush boasting about their strength and size, hoping to catch the eye of an onlooking female. Yet, whether a small, captive population near Powell, Wyo., will participate in the dance remains to be seen.
Authorization to license sage grouse game-bird farms was passed back in 2017 in Wyoming without the signoff of Wyoming’s then-Governor, Matt Mead (R), who wrote in a letter to the director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, “The sage-grouse bill has become law without my signature, and I have considerable reservations with this new law.”
After the passage of the bill, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission set out regulations around the venture. In the five years following the passage, only a single farm has managed to meet the benchmarks laid out. A sunset date of Dec. 31, 2022, was placed in the original legislation, but legislators and moneyed interests in the state are now seeking to remove the sunset date and allow the practice indefinitely with Senate File 61.
In theory, the practice sounds like it could be promising. We farm pheasants, chukar, and Hungarian partridge, so why not sage grouse? Unfortunately, the reality of the bill and the practice as a whole is not so simple.
Call to Action
To contact your Wyoming representative or state senator to express your opposition to Senate File 61, follow the link here for the general directory. Latest news: The bill is heading to the Wyoming House where it will be heard by the Travel, Recreation, and Wildlife Committee. Committee members are: Jamie Flitner, Chad Banks, Jeremy Haroldson, Mark Jennings, Christopher Knapp, JD Williams, Sandy Newsome, Pat Sweeney, John Winter. For more direct contact, the state legislators who are sponsoring SF 61 are: State Senators Drew Perkins, Jim Anderson, Brian Boner, Ogden Driskill, Larry Hicks, Bill Landen, and Tara Nethercott. House Members Donald Burkhart, Steve Harshman, Lloyd Larsen, Joe MacGuire, and Tom Walters.
Issues abound concerning pen-raised sage grouse
As most upland hunters know, the survival rates of pen-raised birds are abysmal compared to their wild counterparts.
One study in Idaho showed that only 4 to 8 percent of pen-raised pheasants survive their first six months in the wild. In contrast, when wild birds were moved from one location to another to help struggling populations, over 40 percent survived their first six months in their new home. In Alberta, Canada, where the only other current captive sage grouse breeding program exists, only two out of 66 captive-reared grouse released in 2018 survived their first year, and only one hatched a brood. The Canadian project is funded with millions of dollars and operated by the Calgary Zoo, in cooperation with the Canadian government, to supplement a dwindling population that is listed as endangered in the country. This is wildly different from the situation in Wyoming where grouse are being removed from the wild by a private company and are privately owned, where the meager additions from captive breeding are unlikely to make a meaningful difference to populations.
In Wyoming, despite being plagued by setbacks and having little demonstration of success, the moneyed interests behind the venture are painting it as an altruistic conservation effort to “save the species,” despite its lack of promise.
The first snag was struck in 2020, the first year that the farm was licensed to collect wild eggs. Each licensee through the legislation is permitted to collect up to 250 wild eggs from nests annually. Collecting eggs has proved to be a time consuming and expensive endeavor, as the WGFD is required to put in staff hours to supervise all collections, and technologies employed to find nests include drones and GPS tracking devices placed on captured hens. Even with this time and money invested, the farm failed to find a single nest in 2020. In the spring of 2021, with refined methods, they collected 134 eggs and hatched 110 chicks. The farm currently holds 51 surviving grouse a little under a year later.
The next hurdle facing the farm will be proving that the grouse will display mating activity in captivity; then that the birds can successfully hatch eggs. Only then can they even begin to tackle the largest problem with the venture: the survival rates of pen-raised birds in the wild.
Experts across North America agree that the real challenge facing the Greater Sage-Grouse stems from the continued destruction and fragmentation of their habitat, the great sagebrush sea of the intermountain west. Putting more birds on a landscape that is already struggling to support current populations, especially birds with significantly lower survival skills, is unlikely to yield any conservation value for the species. This is why the venture has faced opposition from scientists and sportsmen in Wyoming from the start, including groups such as the Wyoming chapter of the Wildlife Society, the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, The Wyoming Sportsmen’s Alliance, and the Audubon Society.
The oil and gas undertones of Senate File 61 and pen-raised sage grouse
The true intentions and goals of the current farm, Diamond Wing Upland Game Birds, remain muddy. The champions of the venture generally claim that it is a selfless endeavor meant to preserve sage grouse and contribute to research, but their data is held as proprietary and they are not under any legal obligation to share it. The sage grouse breeding program is funded by Diamond Sage Grouse Foundation Inc., also known as the Sage Grouse Recovery Foundation. The Foundation is a 501c3 nonprofit founded and funded by men invested in the oil and gas industry. In testimony before the Senate Travel, Recreation, and Wildlife Committee, the president and director of the Foundation stated that in the future, they’d like to see pen-raised birds used as a mitigation measure for the impacts to grouse associated with oil and gas development. It is not too far of a stretch to infer that the nonprofit provides an avenue to financially support the farming venture and future cheaper and easier mitigation measures with tax-deductible donations that can then be funneled to the farm.
The use of pen-raised birds would be a misguided attempt to offset impacts, since the problem with oil and gas development for sage grouse is generally not direct mortality, but habitat destruction and fragmentation. Releasing birds without survival skills on a landscape that can’t support them is not effective mitigation in the long-term. Sage grouse do not have a population problem in Wyoming, they have a habitat problem that cannot be solved with artificial supplementation.
Opposition to Senate File 61 and the stocking of pen-raised sage grouse
In 2017, when advising on regulation after the bill was passed, the Wildlife Society wrote, “Scientific literature suggests that most artificially-reared grouse species die within a few weeks of release due primarily to behavioral deficiencies in released animals, including foraging, predator avoidance, and social deficiencies. Further, the scientific literature pertaining to the captive rearing of sage-grouse as well as other species is consistent in suggesting that the methods, handling protocols and facilities used to rear sage-grouse in captivity directly influence the survivability of individuals upon release…Therefore, the release of sage-grouse that are behaviorally adapted to survive to be recruited into a wild population, nest, and successfully raise chicks constitute unique success criteria for a bird farm.”
The farm in question has not even come close to meeting these criteria of “success,” but proponents continue to push forward by painting it as a research venture that must be seen through. However, they don’t need the sunset date removed in order to continue their experiment. They would be allowed to continue owning the birds that they already have in custody under a special permit and work cooperatively with the Game and Fish Department to establish breeding behavior and bird releases. What removing the sunset date with SF61 would do, is allow the licensing of more farms and the continued collection of wild eggs by every licensee.
Even if the current farm does have altruistic intentions, Wyoming cannot afford to allow the practice of privatizing wildlife to continue, especially with no guarantee that future license applicants would have such noble intentions. The risks are high, from disease outbreaks to nest disturbance to setting a precedent that the state rejected in 1975 when they outlawed farming deer and elk on the basis that native wildlife belongs in the public trust. Wyomingites, especially hunters, foot the bill and have a vested interest in sage grouse populations and conservation. They shouldn’t have birds taken from their hands and placed into private custody. Farming does not factor into Wyoming’s sage grouse conservation strategy, which is robust and focused on realistic and pragmatic solutions.
Further, the state’s governors have a long history in working cooperatively with conservation groups, industrial entities, the Wyoming Sage Grouse Implementation Team (SGIT), and other stakeholders to work toward solutions for sage-grouse conservation that have never factored farming in as a realistic or beneficial solution. Part of these efforts have been executive orders on the subject, which have been supported by three administrations in Wyoming. Current Governor, Mark Gordon (R), has continued this tradition of collaboration and in 2019 he passed the most recent executive order meant to improve on the protections passed down by his predecessors. Upon its signing, he remarked, “This executive order shows how this administration has embraced a proven strategy that is the framework for how Wyoming approaches conservation. It is impressive that such a wide array of interests understand the importance of this issue to Wyoming’s economy and our ecology and were willing to work together to build the strong foundation of this strategy.”
SF 61 passed through the Senate Travel, Recreation, and Wildlife Committee on Tuesday, Feb. 22, and it will continue to readings on the Senate and House floors in the coming days. If you’ve ever dreamt of upland hunting this icon of the West in one of its great strongholds, I would encourage you to stand with Wyoming’s conservation community in telling the Wyoming legislature that sage grouse belong in the public trust, on the landscape. I know that hunters will continue their long legacy of protecting and restoring the habitats that wildlife need, and that is what will safeguard the sage grouse into the future.
Studies and sources
Copeland, H, and Hollorand, M. (2017, July 22). “RE: Chapter 60: Regulation Governing Greater Sage-grouse Raised on Private Game Bird Farms,” Public Comment on Chapter 60 (Draft 5-22-17.12).
Musil, D.D. and Connelly, J.W. (2009, March 1). “Survival and Reproduction of Pen-Reared vs Translocated Wild Pheasants Phasianus colchicus,” Wildlife Biology 15(1), 80-88.
Wyoming Legislature. (2022, February 22). Senate Travel, Recreation, Wildlife & Cultural Resources Meeting, February 22, 2022. Retrieved February 22, 2022, from https://youtu.be/-jZPZEQPyFw.
Auna Kaufmann is the Field coordinator for Wyoming Wildlife Federation. In her day job, she focuses on organizing Wyoming's sporting community and advocating for science-based wildlife management. An outdoor enthusiast and bird nerd in all areas of life, she spends the rest of her time hunting with her partner and her bird dog as well as camping, backpacking, and birding in the beautiful tracts of public land across Wyoming. Auna is also a breed history nerd and dog sport enthusiast, and will be pursuing NAVHDA, AKC hunt tests, conformation shows, and dog sports with her Brittany, Waverly.