CORVALLIS - After 19 years, what finally allowed university, state and federal scientists to soar into the computer age in their study of a low-flying Oregon game bird, the North American sage grouse, which could be headed for the endangered species list?

Gideon Juve, and he wasn't even born when the scientists started their work.

The slender, soft-spoken 17-year-old junior at Grant Union High School in John Day was in the eastern Oregon community of Hines on a recent clear, cold morning to unveil a computer program he developed as a class project. The occasion was the annual Oregon "wing bee" for sage grouse, which weigh up to seven pounds and are the country's largest type of grouse.

At the event, named after sewing and spelling bees, about 30 wildlife experts crowded into an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) warehouse filled with fishing nets, elk antlers, bighorn sheep horns, hip boots and other such paraphernalia. The goal was to examine wings from sage grouse harvested across the bird's southeastern and south-central Oregon range and record data such as sex, age and location of harvest.

Hunters who received sage grouse permits in 1998 donated the wings for science, mailing them to ODFW in self-addressed, stamped manila envelopes they received from the state agency along with their hunting permits.

"When we know a harvested bird's age we can calculate when it was hatched," said John Crawford, a researcher in Oregon State University's Department of Fisheries and Wildlife who started grouse wing bees in 1980, along with Walt Van Dyke, a biologist with ODFW's Malheur district office at Ontario.

Information on when sage grouse hatch each year is "critically important" in assessing factors that affect successful reproduction of the bird, which generally is in decline, Crawford said. The wing analyses also provide valuable information on the age of birds that have survived and are living in the state, he added.

Juve's computer program "crunched numbers" and spewed out information such as hatching dates almost as soon as he entered raw data in a computer at a make-shift work station in a corner of the Hines warehouse.

"At the end of the day the biologists were able to go home with the information not only for their areas but for the entire state," said Crawford. He noted that in past years it has taken him and OSU students many hours to make the calculations with a slide rule-type device.

"I've been working on this program about an hour a day since school started this year," said Juve. But still, he said he was surprised when he entered the Hines warehouse and saw the obvious concern of the wildlife researchers and technicians. "I'd heard they were thinking of making sage grouse endangered. It's neat they can figure out so much from the wings."

Juve's computer program, a fairly simple one written with a basic computer language used in science, came about when an ODFW biologist in Grant County, Craig Foster, contacted local math and computer teacher Matt Jones and asked if one of his students might be able to help wildlife researchers manage the wing data for sage grouse, and blue and forest grouse, with a computer.

"This sort of practical project really helps the student realize there's more to computing than games and things like that," said Jones, who attended the sage grouse wing bee with Juve. "Now Gideon will go home and really burn the hours."

Juve plans to enter the program in an annual Northwest Science Expo scheduled for Forest Grove in the spring, Jones noted.

Collaborating with Juve at the sage grouse wing bee, along with OSU and ODFW personnel, were researchers and technicians from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal Bureau of Land Management and Colorado's state Division of Wildlife.

Sage grouse populations are declining across their entire range in the western United States, according to OSU's Crawford.

In Oregon, "what the winged bees tell us is that from the early 1980s through the early 90s, there was extremely low productivity. The last three years were relatively good," Crawford said.

Crawford said drought in the late 1980s and early 1990s probably hurt the birds, and fire suppression appears to have altered their historic habitat in a negative way. Average to above-average precipitation in recent years and improved livestock grazing management may have contributed to the recent productive years, he speculated.

The OSU professor said research that he and graduate students have conducted since the early 1980s suggests that "the ability of sage grouse to reproduce is one of the most critical factors in their decline." If the birds make it to adulthood they have a relatively good rate of survival.

The birds live around and eat the sagebrush they are named for. But they also need healthy forbs and grasses, especially for the survival of chicks, OSU research shows.

No one knows how large the state's sage grouse population has been, according to Crawford, "but we feel it is at an historic low now."

The birds once were so plentiful "there are records from Hart Mountain (in southeastern Oregon) of cowboys collecting sage grouse eggs for breakfast," he added.

In 1958, hunters harvested more than 21,000 sage grouse, said Crawford, about the estimated size of the entire state population today.

In today's controlled harvest, hunters kill only a few hundred birds. The primary reason hunting is allowed is because it's an inexpensive method of gathering important population information about the birds, according to ODFW biologist Walt Van Dyke.

At the recent wing bee at Hines, Clait Braun, a biologist from the state of Colorado's Division of Wildlife told the assembled researchers and technicians that, although he didn't feel it was warranted, he and many others anticipate that a petition will be filed in the coming year to list sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act across their entire western range.

The petition will come from a private environmental group, Braun speculated, and it could takes several years for the petition to work its way through the courts.

"This is an important data set (the years of wing analyses)," said Braun, "and it will become more important as we go down the road."

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John Crawford, 541-737-1971