TWIN FALLS, Idaho • Wildlife officials will spend as much as $100,000 over two years to poison ravens in three areas of Idaho, but officials don’t know whether that kill will permanently boost sage grouse populations as intended.
Ravens are a main predator of sage grouse eggs, and their numbers have increased throughout Idaho and the West, said Ann Moser, wildlife biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game.
Fish and Game hopes to kill the ravens by placing poisoned chicken eggs in strategic locations, which will be easier than trying to shoot them, Moser said.
“We tried that, but ravens are very smart, and they are not easy to shoot,” she said.
On orders from the Legislature, Fish and Game secured a permit to kill as many as 4,000 ravens over two years near Idaho National Laboratory in Arco, the Curlew National Grasslands and in Washington County near the Oregon border. Sage grouse populations have declined more steeply in those areas than elsewhere in the state, Fish and Game reports.
The raven poisoning starts this spring.
“We can’t directly say that (sage grouse population decline) is from ravens, because we don’t have that information,” Moser said. “There’s anecdotal information.”
The human-related activities that have allowed ravens to expand their territory and populations numbers are the same factors that have contributed to the sage grouse’s demise, she said. Power lines, houses, windmills and water towers provide nesting areas for ravens, and they get sustenance from roadkill, dead livestock and agricultural water.
But even Fish and Game isn’t sure killing the birds will have a lasting impact.
“We’re pretty sure that once you remove a territorial pair of ravens, somebody else is going to move right in,” Moser said. “We are hoping to pick that up in our raven surveys — are we really seeing a (raven) decline or not?”
Spending $100,000 on the poisoning program will be like “flushing money down the toilet,” said Alison Holloran, regional science director for Audubon Rockies. The measure is expensive, time-intensive and short-sighted, she said. “Once you stop doing that, guess what’s going to happen. They are just going to come back.”
Threats to Sage Grouse
Sage grouse are chicken-sized birds known for elaborate mating dances in specific areas called leks. They need solitude and sagebrush-rich landscapes to survive, but their habitat has declined 50 percent over the past century, and populations have fallen 40 percent.
In 2010, federal officials said sage grouse warranted endangered status, but the bird wasn’t listed under the Endangered Species Act because other species had priority. After a lawsuit, a federal judge ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make a final decision on the listing by 2015. If listed, some fear, the bird could halt energy exploration, mining, development and grazing.
Fish and Wildlife’s decision will hinge partly on a draft environmental impact statement and six management alternatives by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. That statement lists the top three threats to sage grouse in Idaho as invasive plants, infrastructure and fire. Predation is tenth.
Dangerous for Pets?
The poison — DRC-1339 — only kills birds of the corvid family, such as crows, ravens and magpies, Moser said.
“If a dog came and picked up an egg, it would not affect the dog. If a dog picked up a raven that died from the poison, that would not affect it either,” she said.
Fish and Game will need to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, as it is the only entity in Idaho with permission to administer the poison, Moser said.
The agency has administered DRC-1339 on other birds, but not on this scale, said Todd Sullivan, eastern district supervisor for Wildlife Services. Research in other states has shown the method benefits sage grouse, he said. Times-News’ calls to Utah Wildlife Services were not returned.
“Utah and Nevada have been doing this work for years,” Sullivan said. “They have shown there have been significant improvements in the areas where they have done the work on sage grouse recruitment.”
Sullivan said putting the poison in eggs will limit the number of other birds that would eat them. “You won’t get pigeons cracking eggs.”
WildEarth Guardians expressed concern on its website about “secondary poison threats to wildlife and to people’s pets,” saying DRC-1339 has killed non-target species.
Really a Grazing Issue?
Ravens are the messenger that there is a sagebrush habitat problem, said Katie Fite, biodiversity director for the Western Watersheds Project.
“Don’t shoot the messenger,” she said.
Fite said the raven poisoning is a ploy meant to distract from larger issues with sage grouse habitat loss.
“If there is an egg predation problem, I would say the first thing is that it is a cover problem,” Holloran said. “It is not a raven problem — it is a habitat problem.”
Raven poisoning won’t prevent sage grouse from being listed as endangered, Fite said. If anything, it will expedite the process based on the idea’s “lack of science.” Moreover, it shows Idaho officials “can’t be trusted to manage sage grouse,” she said. “This is absolutely insane. It is despicable that ravens are being scapegoated for very serious livestock grazing problems.
“Fish and Game really should be ashamed of themselves, but they can’t be or they’d lose their jobs under the abominable oversight of the commission appointed by (Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter) and the Legislature,” she said. “It is like the Legislature isn’t dealing with reality here, and they just want to kill something and not address habitat issues.”
Environmentalists couldn’t care less about ravens’ deaths, said Jared Brackett, a Rogerson rancher and president of the Idaho Cattle Association. They want to capitalize on the plight of any animal to eliminate grazing on public lands in the West, he said.
Brackett said he has changed several grazing practices to help the sage grouse, and he sees “tremendous” numbers of ravens around his property.
His uncle, state Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, was one of several lawmakers to advocate for poison program funding in the state’s fiscal year 2014 agriculture appropriations bill, he said. The senator is also a rancher with more than 1,000 head of cattle.
As for the poisoning project, Jared Brackett said, “It’s a tool in our tool box, and I’m glad to have it. These birds of prey populations have exploded. You can’t tell me that predation on nesting birds is not a factor, and that’s why we are very happy to see it.”
Fite said it doesn’t make sense to kill thousands of ravens, then turn around and kill thousands of sage grouse during the state’s annual hunt.
Hunters have killed 83,769 sage grouse since 2000, according to Fish and Game estimates. Over the past three years, they’ve shot an average of 2,317 sage grouse a year.
Brackett said hunting sage grouse is “part of the management of the bird” and should be done as long as wildlife managers feel they can sustain the bird.