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Grouse collar-research program takes wing

STANLEY, N.D. -- As soon as the dog returned with the sharp-tailed grouse, it was obvious this bird was like no other we had shot. Three of us were hunting sharp-tailed grouse a week ago at the Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge in northwestern North Dakota.

When my Lab returned with the bird, I noticed it had a radio-collar and about a 9-inch antenna attached to it. The bird also had an aluminum band on one leg.

Waterfowl hunters occasionally shoot banded ducks or geese, but a sharptail wearing a radio collar and an antenna was quite unusual. The battery for the collar was about the size of a quarter and about 1/4-inch thick.

The collar had contact information printed on it, so I called prairie grouse biologist Aaron Robinson with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Dickinson, N.D., to report it.

Robinson said this hen, banded and collared as an adult this past April, is part of a four-year research project to determine whether oil-drilling activity in the area is having any effect on the sharp-tailed grouse population. The area near Stanley is humming with oil development, as it has been for the past few years.

The bird I shot was one of 112 hens banded and collared this past April, Robinson said.

"We're trying to be pro-active and see if we can figure out the mechanisms of change at a population level," Robinson said. "My gut feeling is we're not seeing an effect at this point, but we're seeing behavioral changes that could lead to a population effect."

Home ranges of birds in areas affected by the oil-field development are larger than those in a control-group at the Lostwood refuge, where no development is taking place, Robinson said. This coming year, Robinson will add another control-group in an area of agricultural activity, as opposed to the relatively untouched native prairie at Lostwood. He hopes to draw a more accurate comparison of grouse behavior with the addition of the farmland birds.

The radio collar, which weighs 10 grams (about .35 ounces), seemed to have no effect on the sharptail's flight. The bird flushed and flew naturally, and I didn't notice the collar or antenna until my Lab retrieved the bird to me.

The sharptails are trapped while on and near their leks, or dancing grounds, in the spring, Robinson said. They follow chicken-wire "leads," like small fences, that direct them into a circular chicken-wire pen through a funneled entrance. They could get out of the pen, but it's difficult for them to find the small opening in the funnel once inside.

Once banded and collared, the birds' movements are tracked by radio-telemetry either from an airplane or from a vehicle, Robinson said.

Of the 112 hens banded this year, only 10 had broods, Robinson said. Good brood success would range from 40 to 50 percent, but not a lot of research has been done on sharptails, and Robinson doesn't know for sure what normal or average brood success is, he said.

The bird I shot is the first hen to have been taken by hunting this fall, Robinson said, although several males, which had bands but not radio collars, also have been taken.

I have returned the radio collar to Robinson. It's worth about $200 and can be used again, he said.