BOWMAN COUNTY - Stan Kohn and I were laughing like new friends do when they’ve just discovered a common interest.

We were in his pickup at first light on an April morning.

There were sage grouse in the swale. Five of them.

This was a lek, a display ground the birds had used before. Kohn knew about it. He’s the upland game supervisor with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. That means grouse, pheasants, partridges and prairie chickens are his specialties.

He brought me to this a patch of ground between the Cedar Hills and Coyote Creek. That’s in Bowman County, just about as far from Grand Forks as you can get and still be in North Dakota.

Here we would see sage grouse.

Sage grouse are icons of the Great Plains.

These birds are tightly woven into Native American lore and tradition and closely linked to the history of European exploration and occupation of the Plains.

Native American dance steps imitate the movement of sage grouse across their strutting grounds.

So, sage grouse have an intimate connection with the region’s first people.

Meriwether Lewis gets credit for discovering the sage grouse, which he called “mountain cock.”

Elliott Coues, historian of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the leading ornithologist of the 18th century, declared, “The bird Lewis mentions is the sage grouse.”

Theodore Roosevelt saw sage grouse while he lived in Dakota Territory. He called them “cock of the plains.”

All together, the display is a wonder of nature - it’s easy to understand the inspiration they provided for Native American dancers.

Near collapse

Kobriger, Kohn and seven others from the Game and Fish Department were in the Badlands during the week of April 14 - the week of the full moon. This is when sage grouse dance most urgently. The Game and Fish crews visited leks in three counties. At each location, they counted dancing males - if they saw any.

Too often they didn’t.

North Dakota’s sage grouse population appears to have collapsed.

The counters found 31 males. That’s down from 50 last year, continuing a trend that began half a dozen years ago.

This year’s count is the lowest number ever recorded.

It’s down from nearly 300 displaying males in 2000 and 159 in 2007.

Consistent with the Game and Fish Department’s management plan, North Dakota’s hunting season on sage grouse was closed in 2008, when the annual count of dancing males fell below 100 birds.

The results of the count in Bowman, Slope and Golden Valley counties - the state’s three southwestern-most counties, all of them bordering Montana - left Game and Fish biologists disappointed, concerned, puzzled, frustrated, even a little bit angry.

What happened?

The answer is complicated, and there are several theories. Most likely, it’s a consequence of diminishing habitat, changes in habitat, disturbances in the breeding range, disease and the bird’s own specialization.

The grouse may be listed as an endangered species.

Possible causes

Here is the scenario that Game and Fish Department officials agree upon. I heard it from Kobriger, Kohn and Aaron Robinson, who is the department’s upland game biologist in Dickinson.

To begin with, sage grouse are long-lived and slow to reproduce. They lay fewer eggs than sharp-tailed grouse, for example, and are less likely to nest again if their first effort is lost.

Second, sage grouse are “habitat obligates.” That means they depend on a certain type of habitat, in this case, expanses of a single species of sage brush, scientifically called Artemisia tridentata and commonly known as big sage.

There’s still a lot of big sage left in western North America. Tracts of several hundred acres aren’t hard to find in southwest North Dakota.

But the truly vast expanses of big sage that once dominated western landscapes have been fragmented, especially by energy development of many types - oil, gas and wind energy in North Dakota; these and strip mining in Montana and these and coal bed methane in Wyoming.

Plus, the roads and the dust and the noise that come with energy development.

In Bowman County, an energy boom in the early 2000s brought new oil and gas wells and a wind farm.

Roads were built where there had never been roads before.

One of the most extensive areas of big sage habitat became a waste disposal site.

Still, there was a lot of suitable habitat for sage grouse, and some habitat was improving.

Once, Bowman County was the state’s premier sheep-raising area, but sheep have given way to cattle. This should have been good for sage grouse. Sheep are indiscriminate grazers, often stripping most plant life from any area they enter. Cattle are more selective in what they eat, leaving some cover for grouse.

Seeking birds

Game and Fish Department officials are considering a last-ditch effort. They want to bring birds from other areas to supplement and strengthen the North Dakota population.

Last year, they asked Montana officials to provide grouse; initially Montana agreed, but sage grouse counts have fallen there, too, and the state’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks withdrew its approval.

Now, North Dakota officials are talking with game managers in Wyoming. It’s a long shot, Robinson, who’s in charge of the project, concedes.

So far, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has dodged a listing for sage grouse. Listing “is warranted but precluded,” the service has said. That means the sage grouse could be added to the endangered species list, but it hasn’t been because other species have a higher priority.

The very low counts in North Dakota, South Dakota and adjacent areas of Montana - the so-called “tri-state population” - may make listings more likely, though. The Fish and Wildlife Service expects to make a decision within 16 months, by September 2015.

Listing would require state wildlife officials to prepare plans and enforce measures to protect sage grouse. In Wyoming, state game officials already have acted to require buffer zones around energy developments, including oil wells.

The collapse in sage grouse populations in the tri-state area doesn’t necessarily mean listing, however. The Fish and Wildlife Service rejected petitions from conservationists who wanted the tri-state birds to be considered a distinct population. Farther west, sage grouse numbers are more stable, and so the species could survive even if it disappears from some areas.

Still, this year’s numbers reflect a rapid decline. The Fish and Wildlife Service has said that the breeding range of sage grouse has shrunk by 56 percent in the United States. Canadian Wildlife officials are struggling to save a remnant population in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

This has led to a sense of resignation among biologists who work with sage grouse.

On Thursday of count week, the crew gathered at a bar in Marmarth. It’s their tradition.

After a few beers at the end of a disappointing day on which only half a dozen grouse were found, one biologist said, “Maybe time is up for the sage grouse.

“Maybe this is the end for sage grouse in North Dakota.”

So, Robinson was asked: Is this the last dance for North Dakota’s sage grouse?

He wouldn’t go that far. “It the opening stanza,” he said. “We can hear the music, but we’ll be back next year to count again.”