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Associated Press, Published December 24 2012

Montana may send 80 female sage grouse to ND to bolster population

BILLINGS, Mont. — The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission has approved looking into a plan to send 80 female sage grouse to North Dakota to bolster dwindling populations.

The commission on Thursday gave the OK for biologists to look into sending 40 female sage grouse to North Dakota in 2014 and another 40 in 2015.

“It's a fairly well thought-out plan,” said George Pauley of FWP's wildlife division. “They've gone to pretty significant lengths to come up with the best possible practices to ensure it's a success.”

North Dakota Department of Game and Fish officials made the request because the state's population of sage grouse has plummeted since an outbreak of West Nile virus in 2007, and biologists are concerned that natural reproduction might not be covering natural mortality.

“One of the thoughts is that with the population as low as it is, we may be experiencing a genetic bottleneck where bringing in new genes from Montana may help,” said Aaron Robinson, an upland bird biologist with North Dakota Game and Fish.

But it's unclear if Montana will be able to help following a wet spring two years ago and a dry summer this year that depressed sage grouse numbers in Region 7 in the southeastern part of the state.

“The numbers continue to be down in that part of the world,” said Rick Northrup, former FWP upland bird manager. “We're supportive of helping North Dakota out, but it might be one of those things where the timing is off.”

The sage grouse is a chicken-sized bird known for its elaborate mating display. The Fish and Wildlife Service announced in 2010 that sage grouse deserved protection under the Endangered Species Act but that other species demanded more immediate attention. The agency has committed to make a final listing decision for sage grouse by late 2015.

North Dakota officials said it will pay to trap the birds on mating grounds in Montana and supply a plane so the birds could be released the next day in North Dakota. North Dakota would also put radio or GPS collars on the birds to track their survival, and has also proposed hiring a graduate student to study the success of the transplant.

“The big expense is the GPS collars,” Robinson said. “They run about $4,000 apiece. We're still trying to find money for that.”