Conservation project focuses on grouse

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— As the vehicle crept slowly down the dirt roads of Great Divide, the spotlight shined brightly out of the window onto the sagebrush a signal that the hunt was officially on.

The truck continued to manuever slowly, desperately searching for the mirror-like shine from the eyes of the disoriented prey.

Once spotted, the animals looked in the direction of the truck, trying to decipher what the bright lights and music had to do with the cold, Colorado spring night.

No, these were not poachers scouring the desert for mule deer or elk, but rather researchers attempting to study the nesting, survival, seasonal movements and home range of a couple of Colorado's most precious birds the greater sage and Columbian sharp-tailed grouse.

The group, comprised of Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) wildlife research technicians, Colorado State wildlife biologists, and University of Idaho graduate assistants, is part of a cooperative effort to learn more about how the birds can better survive in northwest Colorado's barren, predatory envioronment.

The project which is a collective effort between Colowyo and Trapper Mines, Moffat County, the University of Idaho, Colorado State University, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and area landowners captures, tags, and outfits birds with radio transmitters, which monitor the birds movements and nesting behavior.

"These grouse are very unique in their behavior," said Amy Martin, CSU wildlife research technician. "They are a nocturnal bird, preferring to nest in heavy cover during the day, and feeding in open areas during the night.

"They prefer these open areas at night, because it allows them an advantage over any predators that might detect their presence."

The sage grouse, which the group is currently trapping, weighs close to 4 pounds, and is about the same size as a small chicken.

Armed with battery backpacks, spotlights, 8-foot-long trapping poles and nets, the group turns on the music and hits the field.

The group plays a variety of selections, ranging from Tom Petty and Peter Frampton to Garth Brooks, and even mixes in a little techno-pop.

"The music basically covers up the crunching sound that we make as we run through the brush," Martin said. "Everyone has their own preference as to what works the best, but usually, as long as there's something playing, it works to confuse the birds long enough to get them into the nets."

The group traps primarily hens, as they tend to have a longer life-span than the more colorful, easy-to-detect males, while also proving easier to track.

After the researchers spot the birds, they climb out of the truck quietly, making sure not to slam the doors, which could spook the birds.

They then put on a backpack containing a battery for the spotlight and the tape player that they use to cover the sound of their footsteps.

Contrary to popular belief, the birds are not lulled into a trance by the music.

Although most of the research is done by wildlife biologists, Martin believes there is a group of people that is just as important to the process.

"If it wasn't for the ranchers, we really wouldn't have the ability to do this on the scale that we are," she said. "With their help, we have gained access to a great number of acres that would otherwise be innaccessible. They have been a wonderful help by allowing us to gain access and do some trapping on their property."

The group doesn't keep normal business hours, and outside of the volunteers, you'd be hard-pressed to find a regular nine-to-five worker in the group.

Most of the researchers reside in the "Grouse House," an affectionately named, four-bedroom house overlooking the Yampa River and the Downforth Hills, south of Lay.

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