Sage Grouse Chicks – How & Why of Tagging (Part 1 of 3)

Researchers in Montana carefully attach a lightweight radio transmitter to this days-old sage grouse chick to monitor its survival. Kenton Rowe Photo

  • Program Saves Hundreds of other Wildlife and Plants
  • Provides Tracking for Researchers
  • Identifies Preferred Sage Grouse Locations from Growth
  • Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) Program
Researchers in Montana carefully attach a lightweight radio transmitter to this days-old sage grouse chick to monitor its survival. Kenton Rowe Photo
Researchers in Montana carefully attach a lightweight radio transmitter to this days-old sage grouse chick to monitor its survival. Kenton Rowe Photo

By Brianna Randall, Sage Grouse Initiative

The Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) is a partnership of ranchers, agencies, universities, non-profit groups, and businesses that embrace a common vision: wildlife conservation through sustainable ranching.

Launched by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in 2010, SGI applies the power of the Farm Bill to fund and certify voluntary conservation projects in sage grouse strongholds across 11 western states.  To date, the 1,129 ranches enrolled have conserved 4.4 million acres.

Saving sage grouse saves 350+ other species, including plants, insects and a host of wildlife, and the wide open spaces that define a West where “the deer and the antelope play.

Why do scientists want to tag sage grouse chicks?  

SGI expert, Mark Szczypinski, Conservation Technician with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, has the answer: “It helps us keep track of chick survival rates, seasonal movements, and habitat use.  Plus, it also helps us understand sage grouse behavior.  Here in eastern Montana, we’re learning a lot from tracking hens and their broods as part of a 10-year sage grouse research project that started in 2011.

What’s your role in the Montana sage grouse research study?

“I coordinate all of the field logistics from my base in Roundup, Montana. That means hiring and training 9 seasonal technicians, communicating with landowners, making sure all of the equipment is working, and capturing, tagging and monitoring birds myself, too.

The study area covers approximately a half-million acres, which makes it a huge undertaking. We have 7 pickup trucks and 6 ATVs to help us find and monitor the birds. Each tech is assigned a specific area, and is responsible for tagging and monitoring all of the birds within that area.

Mark Szczypinski (right) tags a chick with Joe Smith, a PhD student working on this study. Sage grouse tagging takes place in the dark, either after sunset or in the pre-dawn hours. Kenton Rowe Photo
Mark Szczypinski (right) tags a chick with Joe Smith, a PhD student working on this study. Sage grouse tagging takes place in the dark, either after sunset or in the pre-dawn hours. Kenton Rowe Photo

Landowner cooperation has been phenomenal during the project, which is important since 85% of the study area falls on privately-owned ranches. The funding provided by a host of public and private partners is also central to keeping the project going.”

A volunteer tagger displays a young sage grouse chick. Mark Szczypinski Photo
A volunteer tagger displays a young sage grouse chick. Mark Szczypinski Photo

How many birds to you tag each year?

“That depends. Before we can tag chicks, we have to first tag females so that we can find their nests. Our goal is to start each spring with 100 radio-marked hens. Usually, we have to capture about 25-40 hens in March and April to get us back up to 100 hens before nesting begins in late April.

It’s important to note that we use very different tags for fully-grown females versus small chicks. We fit adults with a VHF radio transmitter that are 25 g — about the size of the first joint as your thumb — and hangs like a necklace on the hen. For chicks, the transmitters are only 1.3g in weight (smaller than your pinky nail) with a 6-inch-long antenna attached. We suture these tiny tags with two small stitches to the skin on the chick’s back — similar to getting your ears pierced.”

Next week, Part 2 of the series.

For more information on the Sage Grouse Initiative program or to become involved directly with the SGI program, visit: http://www.sagegrouseinitiative.com.