An Attwater’s prairie chicken, now surviving only through captive breeding. Loss of habitat and other factors have pushed the species to the brink of extinction, requiring the extraordinary breeding effort, marked by difficulties. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Nappadal Paothong)

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s sage grouse review team submitted its report Monday, which says, among other things, that “further work is needed to evaluate captive breeding.” The report, the cover letter from the Bureau of Land Management to the Secretary, and the memo from Secretary Zinke to Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt are available here — Ed.

On June 8, Ryan Zinke, the Trump administration’s new secretary of the Interior, issued an order calling for a 60-day review of the sage-grouse management plan. Among other areas of interest, Zinke’s order singled out captive breeding of sage grouse as a possible way to “maintain and improve the current population.”

Chris Madson with pheasants in South Dakota.

The community of wildlife professionals is nearly unanimous in its opinion that captive breeding of greater sage grouse is a bad idea. Hard experience with a number of captive breeding programs lends weight to this view. Perhaps the best example of the pitfalls that plague captive breeding and reintroduction is the Attwater’s prairie chicken.

Before settlement, populations of this subspecies of the greater prairie chicken may have been as high as 120,000 birds. By 1990, there were only 470 left in the wild. Faced with this precipitous decline, wildlife managers began a captive breeding effort in 1992 as the population continued to drop. By 1996, the first year captive-bred birds were released to the wild, the population had declined to 42 birds.

The infusion of birds from the breeding program helped stabilize the population. In 2016, the count hit a modern high of 130 birds in the wild, but that spring, a major flood hit and swamped the remaining chicken habitat in coastal Texas. The 2017 count was back to 42 birds.

They would be gone…

The Attwater’s would almost certainly be extinct if it hadn’t been for captive breeding, but it’s also clear that 25 years of captive breeding and introduction of pen-reared birds have not been enough to move the Attwater’s prairie chicken out of danger — 42 birds in 1996; 42 birds in 2017. Right back where they started. Beyond the environmental shocks that have set back the recovery, there are indications that the captive-reared birds are not well equipped to survive in the wild — they may have weaker immune systems and be more vulnerable to predators than their wild brethren.

Perhaps more critically, there aren’t many places left to put captive-reared Attwater’s prairie chickens. It’s been estimated that, before settlement, there were roughly 6 million acres of Attwater’s prairie chicken habitat. These days, there are between 100,000 and 200,000 acres left, depending on how you count.

Then, there’s the cost. One authority on the Attwater’s program has been quoted as saying that the released birds run about $1,000 each, a figure that doesn’t include start-up costs.

That’s what a captive breeding program looks like, and it’s why biologists suggest captive breeding only as a last resort when a species is in imminent danger of extinction.

The situation facing greater sage grouse is worrisome, without doubt. Half the birds’ range has been destroyed, and much of what remains is in no better than fair condition. New diseases like West Nile virus and exotic invaders like cheatgrass pose threats. Still, there are as many as 500,000 sage grouse left and about 120 million acres of occupied habitat.  

Influencing management on these lands is easier than it is in Attwater’s prairie chicken habitat, since more than 60 percent of greater sage grouse country is publicly owned and federally managed.

With all these reasons to avoid captive breeding, why would Secretary Zinke mention it as an area of focus for the team charged with this 60-day review? The secretary’s order offers a chilling motive: He believes captive breeding may allow “energy and other development of public lands . . . job creation and local economic growth.” In other words, he is hoping to accelerate habitat loss in the West’s sagebrush grasslands, the one trend that really does threaten the future of sage grouse, along with Columbian sharptails, pronghorns, mule deer, and a host of other wild things that depend on the sage.

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Adopting a captive-breeding effort to justify accelerated industrial incursions into the sagebrush wilderness is, at best, an act of ignorance and, at worst, a cynical perversion of science and conservation to benefit well-heeled special interests. As Kate Zimmerman of the National Wildlife Federation asked in a recent blog, “Where will these caged birds go once their breeding grounds are covered with well pads and roads?”

Sage grouse don’t need help with their love lives — they handle that just fine on their own. What they need is a place to live, a landscape that provides food, water, and shelter, secure nurseries, refuge from blizzards and drought. The key to the future of sage grouse is habitat, not captive breeding.

And we hold the key in our hands.

Chris Madson holds a master’s degree in wildlife ecology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for state wildlife agencies in Kansas and Wyoming for 36 years before retiring in 2014 to write full-time. He is a certified wildlife biologist with The Wildlife Society.

Chris Madson holds a master’s degree in wildlife ecology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for state wildlife agencies in Kansas and Wyoming for 36 years before retiring in 2014 to...

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  1. Is there any action that I can take. I’m tired of moaning and hand wringing. this article is spot on. but there is no indication that Zinke’s staff have seen (or given weight to) Chris’s and other wildlife authorities position. It will take more that writing a letter of protest. Or perhaps we should just throw up our hands and accept that current Interior policy though flawed is what it is.

    I’m in a bad position. I am a Pennsylvania resident but I care passionately about Wyoming habitat issues.

    My congressman/senator will ignore my protest about a Wyoming issue, and Wyoming congressmen/senators don’t give a flip about a PA resident. Any suggestions?… give money is not an option.

    1. The governors of the Western states covered by the sage-grouse conservation plans — Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Utah and Nevada — will be key to keeping things on track and safeguarding the habitat. It wouldn’t hurt for them to hear from people from other states who care about the West and wildlife and who travel to Wyoming and other places to see sage-grouse, deer, pronghorns and the other wildlife that depend on sagebrush lands. There will likely be moves in Congress to undo sage-grouse conservation. There have been in the past, so your congressional representatives could help fight that off.