ALMO, Idaho • A rumbling spaceship skims the alien landscape, its beam scouring hillsides as creatures scurry from the light. The ship rises toward dark mountains merely suggested by the faint glow of a cloudy night.
Wait. Is that rumble a Johnny Cash song?
Yes, it’s a country tune blasting from speakers attached to the battery of a pickup, which drives in low gear without headlights up a dirt track on the south side of the Jim Sage Mountains. The man sweeping the spotlight across the desert is wildlife technician Jeff Moker, perched in a tall, swiveling chair mounted in the truck’s bed. And the creatures that scatter in the night are rabbits.
I’m riding along in the truck bed, and this research expedition is an otherworldly experience.
Moker and his spotlight are searching for the shine of eyes in the night. If the eye-shine is pinkish, it’s just another rabbit. If it’s green-turquoise, it’s the elusive bird that Moker and his colleagues want to trap: sage grouse.
The trapping crews assigned to the Jim Sage Mountains south of Malta this month have a quota to meet: 23 female sage grouse.
Some hens are fitted with satellite transmitters shaped like backpacks that fasten around the bird’s legs, rest on its back and transmit GPS coordinates several times a day. Other birds — male and female — will wear radio-transmitter collars when released.
For the next two or three months, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game will follow the birds’ movements to see where the females nest, how many nests hatch and who survives — in short, to gauge reproductive success.
The land-management agencies working to protect the sage grouse and avert its listing as a threatened or endangered species face a short deadline: A federal judge gave the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service until 2015 to make the listing decision. The population’s rebound depends greatly on the spring hatch that Fish and Game technicians will watch so closely.
And their view into those secret lives of sage grouse? It starts with abductions in the night.
• • •
This month’s sage grouse trapping in the Raft River Valley — timed for the week before and the week after a new moon — is a collaboration between the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Game, the University of Idaho and private landowners, said Ross C. Winton, a Jerome-based regional wildlife biologist for Fish and Game.
The data will benefit several research efforts, he said, including an attempt to determine what effects various grazing practices and juniper removal have on sage grouse habitat. The findings will also help Fish and Game manage the species whether or not it’s listed as endangered.
Sage grouse migrate during late spring and early summer, then again in fall. Transmitters and telemetry will give researchers a better idea of what habitats the birds seek out for summer and winter ranges and what migration corridors they use.
It’s only the second spring for sage grouse trapping at Jim Sage, and there already are surprises.
Satellite collars are revealing bigger, more rapid migration movements than researchers previously knew of, and birds are using areas not known to be sage grouse spots. One bird in a single day moved from near Elba, on the northwest side of Jim Sage, to the southeast side of the mountains — about 12 miles.
“For a bird that doesn’t typically fly long distances, that’s a pretty big migration,” Winton said.
• • •
Moker and his trapping colleagues, stationed in trailers near the City of Rocks visitor center, wait until the birds settle down each night.
It’s after 10 p.m. on March 6 when Fish and Game wildlife technician Lauren Morgan, Moker’s wife, drives to somewhere past the pavement, stops the pickup and turns off the headlights. Cattle I can’t see moo in the darkness.
“It turned out to be a dark night. I thought it’d be windier,” Moker says as he pulls on more layers of clothing in the truck bed. Wind would make the birds more likely to spook. “They seem to be on their guard a little more.”
He tapes the spotlight to the top of the truck’s cab, in front of his tall chair.
This night’s two netters — Marcella Fremgen, a Boise State University graduate student studying winter foraging ecology of the sage grouse, and her technician, Nicole Benson — climb into the back of the pickup with their long-handled nets at the ready.
Everybody wears headlamps, but they’re all switched off. I hear only an occasional whisper between Fremgen and Benson as Morgan begins her drive up the dirt track, broadcasting an iPod playlist of country, ’80s, metal, pop. When Moker’s spotlight swings toward the netters, the women crunch their heads toward their knees.
The music and the spotlight are merely strange to the birds we seek, the researchers explain later — at least to birds still as naive as these. Headlights, voices and upright human forms would suggest danger.
Moker stops his beam on a particular spot of desert and taps the window behind his wife’s head. Morgan stops the truck briefly to let Fremgen and Benson jump out and grab their nets. As Moker jiggles the beam to keep the attention of the animal whose eye-shine he spotted, his wife drives toward the target. Each netter walks with a hand on the side of the truck, to avoid being illuminated by the brake lights.
But this one is a false alarm.
“Sorry, guys. Some kind of rodent,” Moker says.
Minutes later, he spots the eyes of several birds, but they flush before the truck can reach them.
The spotlight illuminates their flight, and the sudden smell of sagebrush broken by tires reminds me that this exotic space is the Idaho desert.
• • •
The night’s third attempt ends with Fremgen kneeling beside her net, holding it down with both hands. The three women slowly extract a male sage grouse, talking through their movements to avoid misunderstanding and escape.
Benson cradles the bird while Fremgen spreads its feathers to show off its air sac. On her cellphone, Fremgen plays for me the sound of a male rubbing its wings across its rough chest feathers.
“Do you want males for your project?” Morgan asks Fremgen. “Otherwise this one’s just getting a band.”
Morgan feeds a sack over the bird’s head, then briefly dangles the sack and bird from Moker’s handheld scale. “You’re a big boy,” she says.
She gives a volunteer instructions on how to release the bird without making it flush — but acknowledges that it doesn’t always work.
“They’re really flighty tonight,” Moker says.
We pile into the truck and continue our strange progress through the night, made more bizarre by the arrival of snow in the spotlight’s beam. We see the sudden flush of a big group of sage grouse — probably males that held their positions on a lek to be ready for their dawn display — but soon Moker taps the window again.
It’s another male bird, and the netter’s lunge is successful.
“Looks like he’s been pretty busy on the lek,” Morgan says, holding the bird. “His feathers are all worn out.”
As she and Moker band and weigh the bird, a netter sings along softly to “Proud Mary”: “Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river.”
It’s 12:30 a.m. now, and this crew will keep rolling until, perhaps, 5 a.m.
The Jim Sage trappers have caught 18 of the 23 females in their sage grouse quota.
“We’ve had some great nights,” Moker says — as many as five females in one night.
Just one hen will make this a good night.
Virginia Hutchins is the managing editor-online of the Times-News and Magicvalley.com. Reach her at 208-735-3242.