- Associated Press - Saturday, March 15, 2014

ALMO, Idaho (AP) - 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.

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