Will sage grouse and wind farms mix? Researchers to find out

Study » At night, biologists use spotlights to hypnotize the birds and fit them with GPS collars.
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For almost two months, wildlife biologists in southwestern Utah have bundled up against the cold night air and donned head lamps before climbing onto all-terrain vehicles to search for an elusive ground-dwelling bird.

The purpose of the nocturnal sojourns in the hilly terrain of cedar-juniper trees and sagebrush is capturing the greater sage grouse and outfitting them with radio collars. What biologists learn about the birds' habitat use and range will be used for environmental assessments or studies required when companies apply to lease land to build projects such as wind farms for generating electricity in Iron and Beaver counties.

The existing Milford Wind Corridor Project is not affected by the study because of a lack of birds in that area. But Christine Pontarolo, wildlife biologist with BLM, said some applications have been filed to erect wind measuring devices in the study area -- just north of Cedar City in Iron County to Minersville in Beaver County -- based on wind maps compiled by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Once an application is approved, it can take up to three years for companies to gather enough information before deciding whether to move forward with the permitting process.

"The purpose of the study essentially allows us to look at sage grouse movements and habitat use -- like for nesting, brooding and winter habitat areas," said Pontarolo. "It [study] will provide a baseline of information that can be used in considering wind development."

The $140,000 study is being funded in part with federal stimulus money.

Jason Nicholes, a biologist with the state Division of Wildlife Resources, said capturing the birds is carried out at night because spotlights must be used to hypnotize the birds before they are netted.

"We look for eye shine from the lights," he said.

Noise produced by an ATV or even music is also necessary because the birds are more likely to be spooked by the sound of someone walking through the brush.

"We go out about 10 p.m. and search until dawn," said Nicholes. "Once we capture them we put them into something like a laundry bag to weigh them and then attach a collar and record the GPS location."

He said during this time of year the birds gather in known roosting areas for mating. The study requires 30 birds, but because they can't be captured after April when they are nesting, the collaring efforts likely will resume in the fall.

So far, 15 birds have been collared, all males. They are easier to catch because they are found in more open terrain and their fluffy white breast feathers make them easier to see. But biologists hope to catch females, as well.

Nicholes said the collars weigh several ounces and have a battery life of 18 months. Each collar emits a signal particular to an individual bird. Once attached with a collar, researchers will track the birds in the field and record their locations using GPS.

The chicken-sized birds, which eat grasses, insects and sagebrush -- hence their name -- usually only range five to six miles although some have been known to travel up to 30 miles.

The effect of wind towers and their sweeping blades on the grouse populations are unknown, but Pontarolo said the effect is being studied in projects in Wyoming, where the greater sage grouse also is found.

Researchers already know that sage grouse often steer clear of busy oil and gas developments in places like Wyoming, said Jim Sedinger, a University of Nevada wildlife ecology professor and member of the Sage Grouse Research Collaborative.

One of the concerns is that the birds don't tend to nest near tall structures or power lines for fear they could be perches for eagles or other predators.

As interest in wind energy intensifies, researchers are trying to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to the grouse. A few states have started developing recommendations about where wind turbines should be built in an effort to protect wildlife.

"This has all happened in the West pretty fast," Sedinger said.

Once fairly common in the West, sage grouse have experienced a 90 percent decline in their numbers and a 50 percent decline in their sagebrush habitat from a century ago, according to federal officials. Their habitat spans 11 states, and DWR biologists estimate there are approximately 20,000 greater sage grouse in Utah.

While the greater sage grouse is not listed under the Endangered Species Act, many believe it should have the protected status. But officials have said other species have higher priority for listing.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Will sage grouse and wind farms mix? Researchers to find out

Greater sage grouse

Appearance » Adults are grayish in color with a black abdomen and a long tail with spiky feathers. Males have fluffy white breast feathers. It is similar to the Gunnison sage grouse, which is also found in Utah, but is smaller with a paler tail and more prominent head plumes.

Diet » Grasses, insects and sagebrush.

Breeding » Males display on breeding grounds known as leks to attract females but play no role in raising young.

Survival » Range has decreased in many states due to encroaching development. The bird is considered near threatened.

Source » The Cornell Lab of Ornithology