PINEDALE — Two 8th-grade students advanced greater sage grouse science this spring by making dummy strutting males to lure birds from a nearby drilling rig so they could better hear mating calls.
Under the guidance of Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist Therese Hartman, Maggie Majhanovich and Nora Legerski made 16 paper mache sage grouse. All were male decoys, resplendent in their puffed-up strutting glory with white chests and splayed tail feathers.
In the spring, they took the decoys to a lek, a clearing in the sagebrush where greater sage grouse strut, court, cluck and mate. A drilling rig had moved into the neighborhood and its noise was overwhelming the low-volume courtship calls and noises.
“The oilfield is real loud and it’s hard for them to hear,” Nora said. If they could make a fake lek, Maggie said, maybe the grouse would move their breeding ceremony farther from the rig where they could hear better.
The goal is to bolster the population that’s dwindling around the Pinedale Anticline gas field. The species is in trouble nationwide and warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act.
“The grouse had been leaving because they can’t hear,” Nora said. “By moving the lek … it would help.”
Without a lek, “they won’t reproduce,” Maggie said. “Then they’ll go extinct.”
Buddies since kindergarten
“All our studies indicate the leks within a mile of the drilling activity are declining,” biologist Hartman said. “One lek we’re trying to salvage had over 200 birds on it. It’s down in the 40s now. To respond to that, in order to try to keep the birds on the landscape, we’re coming up with any kind of crazy idea we can.” (See “Grouse count plummets in NPL breeding complex.”)
Nobody’s moved a lek before, Hartman said. There’s almost a desperate effort to staunch the losses. So she gave the project a try.
“We always like to include students when we can,” Hartman said of Game and Fish work. She went to Pinedale Middle School science teacher Aretta Hudlow who nominated the pair. An art teacher helped with supplies and techniques.
Two peas in a pod, the 13-year-old eighth-grade neighbors have been buddies since kindergarten. They’ve worked on their project since February. They’re such close friends they sometimes finish one another’s sentences.
Although they worked with chicken wire, paper mache, paint and other arts-and-crafts supplies from an eighth-grade classroom, the girls’ work is groundbreaking. The Lower Sand Springs Lek is the only breeding ground in a 25-square-mile Pinedale Anticline monitoring area known as Duke’s Triangle that still has birds.
“The idea is to get [grouse] to stay in the gas field until the drilling is done,” Hartman said. When noisy drilling is replaced with quieter, less intrusive production pumps and tanks, the hope is grouse will “go back to business as usual.”
If declines continue, however, they could cause the BLM to require drillers to modify their operations, Hartman said. Changes could easily make production more expensive.
Literature regarding the fidelity of grouse to leks is thin. Generally, males stay at one lek. The same leks are used year after year. A research paper in 1963 suggested that some leks in southeastern Idaho might have been active since the time of Indian occupancy, at least 100 years earlier.
A paper published in IBIS in October, 2014 said the probability of male grouse moving from one lek to another is approximately 3 percent. An experiment at a coal mine near Gillette in 1978 and ’79 laid the groundwork for Therese’s idea. That year James Tate Jr., environmental coordinator for Atlantic Richfield Co., sought to move a lek that was in the way of the developing mine.
Researchers made dummy grouse and played recordings at a cleared, artificial lek almost a mile away. But the results were disappointing and the mine eventually destroyed the original lek. “Visitations to the artificial lek were few,” Tate and his colleagues wrote.
Girls want to do better
Hartman and the girls hoped for better success. “We figured we’d have to find something that worked, we’d have to change it up,” Maggie said.
One thing Game and Fish changed was the distance of the artificial lek from the real one. Instead of placing it almost a mile away, as Tate tried in 1978, biologists mowed their first patch 100 yards from the real Lower Sand Springs lek. Another artificial lek was mowed a quarter mile from the original.
“We assume they’re not going to move a half mile,” Hartman said. “We assume it’s going to take steps.” Hartman and her Game and Fish colleagues made two sets of artificial leks near real, troubled ones. The real ones, “they are within a quarter mile of drilling right now,” she said.
If the experiment is successful, one lek would be moved three quarters of a mile. The other could only be moved a quarter of a mile before it would be too close to another danger — a highway.
Another difference between the Pinedale and Gillette efforts is how researchers created the artificial leks. At the coal mine in 1978, workers used a backhoe to scrub the area. Game and Fish mowed its artificial leks near Pinedale. Game and Fish also seeded its mowed patches with plants to help grouse last year so there would be some new vegetation. The girls made only strutting, male grouse.
“We were told the females in the other experiments hadn’t worked,” Maggie said.
Hartman constructed the chicken-wire frames for the dummy bodies. The girls “did a little research,” Maggie said, and began to apply the paper mache, making the grouse during lunch breaks, study hall, sometimes in science class. They used carpentry shims to represent the splayed tail feathers. The paper grouse had to resist weather. The girls painted the dummies, including the birds’ gold eye-shadow. They found a faux fur to glue on as white chest feathers.
“We kinda kept fixing them until they looked like we thought they should,” Maggie said.
“It’s a lot of hard work,” Nora said. “You had to be organized. You had to be done with paper mache by this date, paint by this time, get them out there.”
The grouse needed identities, of course. “We named all 16,” Maggie said: Larry, Matthew, Jim, Bill, Phil, Will, Alejandro, Juan, Reggie, Guinness, Keaton, Finn, George, Murph, Marty and Morris. “Some had weird beaks, some had funky tail feathers.”
Finally, they went out to the artificial clearings, drove stakes into the ground and wired the grouse down. Hartman and her colleagues set up the sound systems and programed them to play for a couple of hours at dawn.
(Check out this audio that was used in conjunction with paper mache grouse.)
“We’d go out early in the morning before school or on Sundays,” Maggie said. “We’d watch from the cars with the binoculars, spotting scopes.”
The scientists began to record their observations.
“You start on one end and count and then go back the other way,” Maggie said. “You’d see some of them running, some of them hanging out.”
Nora marveled at the males’ displays. “You could see them puff up,” she said. “It was fun to see them strutting around.”
The decoys worked. During the four or five early morning visits to the Lower Sand Springs leks, Maggie and Nora saw eight males on each of the artificial clearings.
Noise a big problem for grouse
Natural background noise at a lek is 16 to 20 decibels, Hartman said. At gas-field leks, she recorded sounds as loud as 28 decibels. “We know that’s too much,” she said. Drilling rigs can be as loud as 62 decibels measured about 100 yards away, she said.
The next step to help grouse is to try and erect sound barriers, Hartman said. “They would be around the edges of a [drill] pad, a shroud around the rig itself,” she said. Through the Pinedale Anticline Project Office, the BLM, Game and Fish, Department of Agriculture and DEQ spend mitigation money to offset gas field impacts, and baffles might be one tool.
In August, a Colorado company will come to the area to demonstrate how noise-reducing blankets work, Hartman said. “I’m sure it’s going to reduce the sounds.”
Drilling in the Anticline field is phased, so the noisy part of the operation occurs in an area during one period, then moves on.
“Once the drilling’s done, you still have compressor stations,” and other oilfield facilities, Hartman said. “Those are impacting leks at some locations as well,” and baffles could be employed on them, too.
Hartman will repeat the exercise next year and expand it to some inactive leks where drilling has chased grouse off. “We’ll see if we can’t entice the birds to move back,” she said. “They’re not abandoned yet,” she said of the leks. “But the birds are wild animals. They’re going to do what they’re going to do.”
Biologists have taken other measures to help greater sage grouse in the area. They’ve installed small guzzlers — animal water fountains. They’ve marked fences to reduce bird strikes, converted windmills to solar pumps to deny raptors a place to perch. “We even put up signs along the road with little sage grouse on them telling people to be aware,” Hartman said.
“This is what I went into this business for — this kind of fun stuff,” the 10-year Game and Fish veteran said. “Fun stuff” includes her first magical morning over the dummies.
“It was one of those moments,” she said, “coyotes howling, the sun coming up. I haven’t gotten tired of it yet.”
Failing to preserve the bird would have consequences, she said. “If the bird gets listed [as a threatened or endangered species] everybody’s going to have a hard time.”
The grouse project has taught Nora and Maggie about the web of life. “I think grouse play a part in the whole ecosystem,” Nora said.
If they were gone, who knows what might happen, Maggie said. “It would affect other things — everything’s balanced.”
Just because the early morning excursions to the spring mating grounds are over doesn’t mean the two can kick back. Their project will be entered in a science fair next school year.
“Now that we have our data, we have to type everything out,” Nora said.