It’s 2 a.m., the middle of a cold March night in southern Oregon, and for five hours Kourtney Stonehouse ’08 has been tromping over rugged, muddy terrain, net at the ready. She stays on the heels of a man with a spotlight, and when his beam finds a roosting sage grouse, she pounces. By the end of the night she’s caught three birds—and fallen a lot.
“It’s amazing what adrenaline, a lot of caffeine and positive thinking can do,” Stonehouse said. “Plus, I didn’t want to be the weak link.”
On this night she was the only woman in a group of biologists and volunteers who over five nights captured 37 sage grouse. At about 4 a.m., they took the birds to a processing site to weigh, measure and fit them with radio collars. Then, after a little sleep, Stonehouse drove the birds 12 hours to the Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area in eastern Washington, her research site.
A graduate student in Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University, Stonehouse is working with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and the federal Bureau of Land Management to study what kind of habitat greater sage grouse, and also Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, need to thrive.
Both species once numbered in the tens of thousands and ranged across the shrub-steppe (grassland) environment of eastern Washington. Agriculture, primarily, has taken over their habitat so that only 1,200 sage and 900 sharp-tailed grouse remain in Washington. This has prompted the state to designate both species as “threatened,” and since 2005, WDFW has been translocating birds from neighboring states to try to restore their populations.
Once Stonehouse arrived at Swanson Lakes with her cargo of birds, she took them, in specially designed boxes, to a lek, a breeding ground. She released them in the morning, when resident male grouse come to strut for mates.
“We’ve found that if the translocated birds see resident birds strutting, they’re more apt to stick around,” she explained.
Throughout the year Stonehouse tracks translocated grouse—both sage and sharp-tailed—by the signals their radio collars emit.
“I’ve tracked birds on foot and snowshoe, by plane, ATV, truck and mountain bike,” she said. Some days I walk 15 miles.”
All that bird location data she overlays on a highly detailed map she’s creating of the area’s vegetation. This shows her what kinds of habitat each grouse species selects for its home range and for nesting, which in turn suggests how wildlife agencies can best manage the land so that both sage and sharp-tailed grouse thrive.
Although Stonehouse’s intensive habitat study is providing new and critical data—preliminary findings indicate the two species may be more compatible than once thought—by itself it can’t ensure the future of the grouse in Washington.
“It’s going to require a lot of cooperation among many different agencies, both federal and state, and private landowners, too,” she said. “I’m an advocate for the wildlife, but I’m learning that if you insist on no development, no one will listen to you.
“The trapping trips seem to come at the perfect times—when I feel bogged down with data. Although they’re physically exhausting, I always come back rejuvenated, because I see how passionate the grouse biologists are about protecting the birds, and I see my work is making a difference.”