POWELL, Wyo. — Hours after sunset, Karl Bear and a few farm hands began their work. With an order for 1,000 game birds due in Billings before sunrise, it promised to be a long night of work one recent Friday with few hours of rest.
Bear manages Diamond Wing Upland Game Birds, LLC, a Powell business and the largest game bird farm in Wyoming.
First up, loading 500 chukar by hand in specially designed crates. Bear uses a net to catch the speedy game birds. One of the hardest parts of the job is keeping count — 15 per crate. Luckily, his help arrived before the heavy wood and metal crates needed to be carried out of the pen and stacked on the delivery truck. The work that tests the body.
Bear turns his attention to the pheasant. Each has to carefully caught by hand, something that would be impossible in the light of day.
“Try not to use their tails as a handle,” Bear instructs the crew. The pheasants need to be in top shape for the clients.
Even in the dark when the birds are more calm, getting a firm grip of an adult pheasant with sharp talons and beak, is tough. Blood trickles from the hands of Bear’s top employee, going mostly unnoticed due to years of more of the same.
After all the crates are loaded and secured, it’s time for a few hours of sleep before Bear climbs in the cab of his dually at 3 a.m. to begin his drive to Billings. Road conditions are a concern in November in northwest Wyoming and southern Montana.
“It’s our busy season. There’s not much time for rest,” Bear said. “Even if it’s snowing here, the sun may be shining there tomorrow and they’ll want their birds.”
But the 58-year-old’s most challenging work may be yet to come. Diamond Wing is the leading candidate to be certified to attempt breeding sage grouse in captivity. The company is currently working on its application to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to collect wild sage grouse eggs and begin the process of trying to be the first in the country to raise the imperiled bird in captivity.
‘THE ULTIMATE GOAL MAKES SENSE’
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead signed off on Game and Fish regulations on Nov. 11. Earlier in the year, Mead allowed legislation giving private game bird farms the right to attempt captive rearing to pass without his signature.
Mead was part of a decade-long, 11-state collaborative effort to keep sage grouse off the endangered species list. He isn’t a fan of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s attempts to alter the federal plan, finalized in 2015, that stemmed from those efforts. Zinke hopes to free up sage grouse habitat for mineral extraction and development in part by augmenting wild populations with grouse bred in captivity.
Applications went out to prospective Wyoming game bird farms last week. Two commissioners and the wildlife division deputy chief toured Diamond Wing’s sprawling facility. The farm, owned by Diemer True, of True Oil, and managed by Bear, who started the business in rural Powell, has been raising birds for nearly 30 years.
True, who also represented gas and oil interests on Mead’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team, invited the Game and Fish crew to do a walkthrough of his facility while the commission met in Lovell for their quarterly meeting. Scott Edberg, deputy chief of the Wildlife Division, Gay Lynn Byrd, commissioner from Douglas, and Mike Schmid, commissioner from LaBarge, took the tour. While Diamond Wing is still working on its application and none have been certified, it is considered to have the best chance at being certified.
“I was impressed. I don’t have anything to compare it to, mind you,” said Byrd, one of the newest commissioners. “But it was kind of neat the numbers they produce and they do it from beginning to end.”
Edberg supervises the state’s wild game farms, which stock many popular hunting locations — including the Yellowtail Wildlife Habitat Management Area outside of Lovell — and raise 30,000 pheasants a year.
“It’s a very viable operation,” Edberg said of Diamond Wing.
He knows captive breeding is a gamble — one that will likely cost a lot of money and has a limited amount of time to prove its value. The current law expires in 2022. Depending on how the certification process goes, Diamond Wing may have to wait until the spring of 2019 before it can collect wild eggs. The effort may also require building a brand new rearing facility to satisfy a requirement that there be a buffer between grouse operations and other farmed game species. That’s a major expense.
“I don’t think they’re looking at any (money),” Edberg said. “It’s the conservation of the bird that’s important.”
Commissioner Schmid was impressed with the operation, calling it fascinating. At first, he wasn’t comfortable with raising sage grouse in captivity, with the bird on the brink of being listed as endangered. But the idea is growing on Schmid.
“The ultimate goal makes sense to me. I like the idea of having this five-year program to see if this is even possible,” he said. “If we can take measures to keep the bird from being listed and supplement our wild population, I think that would be awesome, but from what I understand, that’s going to be quite a trick.”
True said as much while the commission worked on the regulations for captive breeding.
“I don’t think it’s reasonable to think that raising a captive population would be a material augmentation to wild populations. What we’re trying to do is have one additional arrow in the quiver that would help avoid having the listing of the bird as endangered,” True said in August. “This is supplemental to efforts on habitat.”
AN UPHILL EFFORT
Diamond Wing representatives lobbied the state Legislature to pass the law and have been researching the process — something that had never been done until recently. The Calgary Zoo announced last month that its multi-million dollar captive breeding facility had its first successful brood of sage grouse. The zoo announced in October that eight hens, six males and 50 hatched juveniles were thriving at its Devonian Wildlife Conservation Centre.
“Saving greater sage grouse is important, but it is not easy. I am proud of the progress that has been made in founding a vibrant reintroduction breeding program that can assist wild populations for years to come,” Axel Moehrenschlager, the zoo’s conservation director, said in a release.
The facility has strong financial backing, including funds from the government — spending millions in an effort to save the highly endangered species in Canada. In 2016, estimates of the wild population in that country ranged between 250-400 individuals, down from millions. There are only five known breeding grounds, or leks, left in Canada. The population crashed in part due to fragmentation of the sagebrush habitat in which the birds thrive.
The Calgary Zoo was able to collect wild eggs from two Canadian providences as well as from breeding grounds in Montana. Its successful brood is the first time sage grouse have been bred in captivity. Bear visited the zoo and has worked with its staff in advance of Diamond Wing’s application.
“They were very helpful. And we’ve continued to correspond,” Bear said.
He also spent time at the Sutton Avian Research Center in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, which concentrates on studies of several species of grouse.
Two wild grouse species have been subjects of captive breeding efforts. The longest effort has been a program to raise and augment wild populations of the extremely endangered Attwater’s prairie chicken. A captive breeding program at the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge has been in operation since 1992.
Attwater’s prairie chickens — a species of wild grouse that once numbered more than a million but plummeted to less than 50 individuals — have been the subject of a conservation effort spanning more than two decades and a cost of almost $200 million. Despite numerous attempts, the species, which was listed as endangered in 1967, is proving hard to breed in captivity and much harder to survive once released into the wild.
Everything from predation to weather has hampered the efforts to bring the species back from the brink of extinction. The refuge recently reported bad news after Hurricane Harvey hit the area. Of 29 individuals being tracked by VHF transmitters before the storm, only have five were confirmed to have survived.
Mike Morrow, the senior wildlife biologist at the refuge in Eagle Lake, Texas, has spent his entire career with the Attwater’s prairie chicken. He’s been at the refuge for 27 years. He feels captive rearing should be the last tool in species conservation.
“I don’t want to dismiss captive rearing, but it should be viewed as a last-ditch effort in species conservation,” Morrow said in a Friday interview.
Morrow’s job has had its heartbreaking moments, watching attempt after attempt fail. Despite his best attempts, he’s watched the species barely hang on after decades of work and millions of dollars.