Fencing? C’mon.

Posted November 10th, 2009 by kcorliss. Comment (0).

The sage grouse is easily the largest native upland game bird in the US. But apparently size has nothing to do with your survival chances (just ask the woolly mammoth). In this case–as in virtually all cases regarding wildlife–it’s all about habitat.

(greater sage grouse, courtesy USFWS)

For a variety of reasons native sagebrush habitat is being usurped for other purposes. Farming, ranching, fossil fuel extraction, even urban sprawl are contributing to the loss of sage habitat, a necessary requirement for these large grouse. And there very well may be other factors involved of which even the experts are not aware. In any case their numbers seem to be dwindling. So much so that the US Fish and Wildlife Service (after a lawsuit) will decide by February whether to list the bird as endangered.

Wind power has taken a gut punch from the save-the-grouse crowd as it appears the birds do not tolerate the presence of large, looming, spinning structures (I don’t either). Recent research from Wyoming, however, is taking aim at a mainstay of the American west: barbed wire fencing.

From the AP (via the Seattle Times) dateline, Cheyenne, Wyo:

An ongoing study found that collisions with a relatively short section of barbed-wire fence killed dozens of sage grouse over a seven-month period, research that could affect a decision on whether to protect the bird under the Endangered Species Act.

In the results released last week, researchers with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department documented 146 instances of finding sage grouse feathers and/or carcasses on or near a 4.7-mile section of barbed-wire fence near Farson in western Wyoming.

This would seem to indicate that fencing likely contributes to the mortality of other grassland birds which really shouldn’t be a surprise, it is a hard-to-see obstacle after all. But how much impact is it really having?

The researchers gathered their collision figures in 2007 between April and November. Subsequent research looked at whether colored tags helped sage grouse avoid flying into the fence.

"Our data suggests that they are effective," said Tom Christiansen, sage grouse program coordinator for the Game and Fish Department. "What we’re working on now is, OK, what’s the best design, how many markers need to be on the fence, what’s the best reflective tape that needs to be on them?"

The group which brought the original lawsuit immediately pooh-poohed the idea:

"The chances of these little reflectors being placed every six feet over the tens of thousands of miles of fence that occur within sage grouse habitat in Wyoming is nonexistent," Ratner (Jonathan of Western Watersheds Project) said.

He is probably right on this one. But this issue brings up a screaming question in my mind. If barbed wire fencing is a problem to sage grouse, why did it take well over 100 years of ranching practices to figure it out? The obvious answer is staring us all in the face: fencing is not a big problem, merely a small contributor to a long list of culprits which lead to grouse mortality. The fencing has been there so long, in my opinion, the bird population numbers long ago adjusted to the presence of the cattle barriers. It simply took us this long to figure it out. (Although the locals probably saw the birds hitting the fences and dying for the last, oh, 150 years or so. But nobody bothered to ask them).

Is this relevant in North Dakota? You bet. We’ve not had a sage grouse season for the second year in a row due to concerns about the overall population in the state. So this is very relevant even for we fairly insulated northlanders. Keep an eye on developments with this one…

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