New technology helps biologists survey remote Greater sage-grouse leks
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New technology helps biologists survey remote Greater sage-grouse leks

A sage-grouse hen is equipped with a solar powered GPS transmitter. Lee Foster photo.
Click on image for higher resolution.
North Birch Creek Sage Grouse lek Survey
SG Golden Eagle Mine Sage Grouse Lek Survey

May 4, 2015

BEND, Ore – The World War II era was the last time several sage-grouse leks were surveyed in eastern Oregon until this year when biologists tested using infrared technology to detect birds from the air. Many other leks hadn’t been surveyed in more than 20 years.

This spring, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists are trying infrared technology (IR) to survey leks – areas where males gather in a mating display for females – that are difficult to visit on the ground for reasons including access or extreme remoteness. ODFW contracted with Owhyee Air Research to conduct the surveys with fixed wing aircraft.

“We’re very pleased with the results, and the technology looks promising. We confirmed many leks are still active that haven’t been surveyed for decades because of access issues,” said Jackie Cupples, Statewide Sage-grouse Coordinator.

Male counts are used as the population index, and adding visible light cameras may let biologists distinguish males from females and allow continued monitoring of remote or inaccessible leks.

Another new technology being tested is solar-powered GPS transmitters.

More than 1 million acres of sage-grouse habitat burned in the 2012 wildfires. To see how well the birds respond to very large, landscape altering fires, biologists fixed the transmitters to 66 sage-grouse hens in 2013 and 2014.

Transmitters record up to several point locations daily which biologists can access via any desktop computer with internet access. It would be very expensive to collect similar data with conventional VHF radios that require technicians and biologists on the ground to triangulate locations, especially for birds that may move several miles in a day. The GPS point locations also improve lek location accuracy.

The majority of leks are still counted from the ground to get an index of male attendance, but the combination of IR flight and GPS transmitter data is giving biologists more tools to survey leks that are difficult to access. IR flights may also reduce risk to biologists who survey leks from helicopters that fly at low elevations in mountainous terrain.

Partnerships are key in conserving sage-grouse and funding sources help make these types of research projects happen.  The IR flights were funded with a combination of ODFW and Bureau of Land Management funds while ODFW’s Upland Game Bird Program funded the 66 hens equipped with GPS transmitters. Funding form the Oregon Hunters Association and Oregon Wildlife Foundation will in part allow the project to continue with a new PhD student, technicians and more GPS transmitters.

IR flight video can be seen here.

North Birch Creek -

Golden Eagle Mine -




Jackie Cupples, 541-388-6147
Dave Budeau, 503-947-6323

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