Surrounded by sage, Makeda Trujillo (holding antenna) and Nicole Nielson search for grouse.
It was cold and getting colder atop the Tavaputs Plateau as the trio of searchers set out on foot and ATV across Sage Flat at sundown.
They were searching for sage grouse, and one grouse in particular was going to be a big help.
"We called it our Judas bird because it would lead us to the others," quipped Nicole Nielson, habitat biologist with the Division of Wildlife Resources.
This bird had been wired for sound on a previous expedition. Signals from its radio telemetry collar would lead Nielson, volunteer Bart Kettle and DWR seasonal worker Makeda Trujillo to more grouse. They are sociable creatures, explained Nielson, so find one and you can probably find others.
Armed with a radio antenna and receiver, a big net mounted on a long pole and an ATV with nice, bright headlights they found the birds.
Grouse capture is not particularly complicated, Nielson explained. Once you spot one, approach slowly with the ATV. The bird fixates on the headlamps and is temporarily blinded.
The netter approaches from the side, makes the swoop and the bird is nabbed.
Grouse are fairly docile if they are handled gently, "which makes it a lot easier to get the collars on them," Nielson said.
The point of wiring the birds is to make it easier and more accurate to track them through their habitat.
"The more you know, the more bang for the buck you get in habitat projects," she explained.
It will also give natural gas producer Bill Barrett Corp. a more precise idea of where to locate roads and wells as the West Tavaputs drilling advances.
Those projects and environmental engineering will be crucial for the health and survival of the grouse population in months and years to come.
Centrocercus urophasianus, or Greater Sage Grouse, is a species in trouble. Once the population numbered in the millions, but now it is down to a few hundred thousand across the West.
It is rated "warranted but precluded" for endangered species classification. That is a roundabout way of saying that they would be treated as endangered but there are other species in worse shape that must be dealt with first.
For the moment, the DWR is restricting hunting in some regions where populations cannot handle hunting pressure and allowing limited hunting in others.
Nielson said Bill Barrett has been cooperating with DWR to minimize impact. That cooperation goes beyond funding more than half of the habitat studies and monitoring.
The company has rerouted the road the searchers used for access on this trip and has agreed to site well pads more in the trees than on the sage flats, she noted.
Nielson, Trujillo and Kettle managed to capture and collar four birds between sundown and midnight. "That's a lot, believe me," she declared.
The next step is tracking and plotting. DWR will make occasional overflights to get an idea of where the birds are hanging out. Trujillo, meanwhile, will be doing groundbound surveying with telemetry, GPS and maps.
Sage grouse, by the way, are favorites of wildlife photographers. These are the birds that gather in groups called leks during mating season where the males strut about, puff out their chests and spread their feathers to impress the females.
It's sort of an avian Mr. Universe contest.
Despite the display of male pomp and virility, however, DWR is much more interested in keeping tabs on the females. "The hens are more important for the growth of the population," Nielson noted.