POWELL – Locked in a small, secluded room at the back of a store at Diamond Wings Upland Game Birds, sleep-deprived Karl Bear watched the story unfold.
At 3:30 p.m. on Monday, wild sage-grouse chicks began to emerge from their shells, falling into the controlled environment inside a state-of-the-art industrial hatchery. With perseverance, each worked their wobbly legs, gaining the confidence to explore the platform and introduce themselves to their siblings.
It was the first time that a commercial enterprise succeeded in collecting wild eggs and incubating and hatching chicks with the aim of raising and breeding in captivity the iconic bird species of the West.
Twenty-four hours later, seven chicks had hatched from the first seven eggs the Powell Company had collected under the watchful eyes of biologists and wardens at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department near leks statewide.
With each new chick, Bear’s tired eyes would lift in excitement – the same way they did when each of his wife’s five children and his wife Stacy arrived, he said. While Bear has bred millions of game birds over the years – succeeding with some hard-to-breed species where many have failed – this is the first time he’s had to act as a parent to wild chicks. Diamond Wings owner Dennis Brabec calls her “the wise hen”.
Bear started the game bird farm 26 years ago as a hobby to spend time with his children. None of them stayed with the business, but it became the largest bird farm in the tri-state area, often delivering birds by the thousands all the way to the West Coast.
But sage grouse eggs don’t look like Bear’s current inventory of farm-raised Hungarian chukars, pheasants and partridges. When Bear collects eggs from farm-raised birds, it is before incubation and they can be stored in an industrial refrigerator until he has time to begin incubation. In this way, he can hatch thousands of chicks at the same time, which makes the process easier to control and more efficient.
However, he is now dealing with wild eggs which are already being incubated by their mothers. Each brood has separate incubation dates, which means the bear must be available 24/7, checking eggs, and watching for the right time to move from incubator to hatchery. Then, once the chicks hatch, they should be moved to the brooder room and hand-fed a mouthwatering mix of bedbugs and plant protein until they are old enough to fend for themselves. The next seven days are essential for the survival of the young grouse, but Bear remains positive.
“I have my little trade secrets,” Bear said.
This is a difficult process that lasts between 21 and 28 days of incubation (depending on how long the hen has been on the nest) and then at least another six weeks before the birds can be moved to enclosures. flight separated to become adults and eventually become the future breeding stock farm.
April 28 was another big day. It was then, with the representatives of Game and Fish in tow, that Bear and the members of the Diamond Wings team finally collected their first eggs. They had failed to locate a viable nest last year despite the use of drone technology, dog-birds and 20 days of trekking hundreds of miles through the region’s vast sagebrush steppe. .
The failure of the effort set the company back a year and cost it tens of thousands of dollars in lost game bird revenue as regulations require the company to keep other species away from the special production facility for sage grouse.
This year, the Diamond Wing team deployed GPS transmitters to the hens, tracking them via satellite until they were fully engaged. The process was more efficient, which was better for the nesting sage grouse, said Leslie Schreiber, manager of the sage grouse program for game and fish. “The key point with telemetry hens, there is minimal disruption.”
There’s also the benefit that after collecting the eggs, game and fish could see if the hens are rebuilding their nests, Schreiber said. While she has a Masters Degree in Wildlife Biology and Sage-Grouse is her specialty, much of what’s going on right now is new information.
“Once the eggs are collected, it’s a step I don’t know anything about,” she says.
Telemetry is labor-intensive and expensive, but a failure could have meant the last nail in the coffin for the first experiment of its kind. The Wyoming legislation that allowed the bird farm to participate in the experiment has a five-year sunset clause – and this is the fourth year the team has attempted to complete the experiment.
“It was important that we had positive results this year,” said Bear. “It could have been earlier, but the technology was so expensive.”
The Western States Sage Grouse Recovery Foundation, founded by former Diamond Wings owner Diemer True, footed the bill for building the facilities, new equipment, and labor to carry out the experiment. It also helped cover the cost of lost farm income.
Schreiber has been involved in the process since the law was passed. State officials are not allowed to assist in any way, but are mandated to escort field teams and have carried out several inspections of the farm during its transition to comply with game and wildlife regulations. peach.
Bear, the manager of Diamond Wings, has been certified to try the experiment for the past four years. This is the first year that the effort has shifted to the lab and Bear feels a great weight on his shoulders. He’s confident, but it’s been an uphill battle.
“I’ve been working on this since 2004,” Bear said. “It’s amazing that we are at this point now, but there is still a long way to go.”
Critics – including most conservation organizations and scientists – have opposed the project from the start. Many opponents believe that if the experiment were to be carried out, it should be carried out by government or university scientists. Bear understands their complaints, but admits it hurts.
“They all hope we fail,” he said, adding, “There are a lot of eyes watching us. And you know, there are so many negative people out there who felt that not only should we not do it, we couldn’t do it.
But Bear has help: Scientists from Colorado, staff at the Sutton Avian Research Center, contacts from the Devonian Wildlife Conservation Center at the Calgary Zoo in Canada, and the Meeteetse Conservation District have all helped during the process.
The Devonian Center made history last year, being the first facility in the world to successfully breed and rear sage grouse in captivity.
“Saving the sage grouse is important, but it’s not easy,” said Dr. Axel Moehrenschlager, director of conservation and science at the Calgary Zoo. “I am proud of the progress that has been made in creating a dynamic reintroduction breeding program that can help wild populations for years to come.”
Although not a biologist by training, Bear has been persevering in his bird breeding studies and doggedly researched all options for information on breeding and keeping the sage grouse.
While her efforts come under scrutiny, making U.S. history gave her a short opportunity to celebrate. But from there the process only gets more difficult. Angi Bruce, deputy director of Game and Fish, points out that the wild egg hatch is far from the biggest test Diamond Wings will face.
“The hatching of the eggs was no surprise,” she said. “The eggs hatch quite easily in an incubator. I would say the hardest part will be on the release of the birds and the concept behind the release – what they’re trying to achieve with the release – and then the success of that release. In our mind, that will be the biggest challenge. “
Bear takes one step at a time. He doesn’t care to get to the point of releasing birds into the wild, because that’s not the point of this experiment, he said – at least for now.
“Our only focus right now is to see if we can breed them and have diverse genetics,” Bear said.
Any release to the wild in Wyoming should be done at the discretion of Game and Fish officials and seems unlikely due to the controversial nature of the experience.
But Bear won’t let speculation bring him down. If anything, the harder the task, the harder he works.
“My passion is growing,” he says. “It usually goes the other way around in life, but it’s more than I ever thought.”