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Phil Douglass, Utah DWR

The two jailbirds found each other within minutes of their escape on a desert island.

Although they took off in different directions, it was only a matter of minutes before they were reunited — in a tree.

They were tagged No. 148 and No. 149 before they fled their vodka-box prison, but now, in the wild, they'll just be known as Columbian sharp-tailed grouse.

Ron Greer, their prison warden who is better known as a habitat biologist with the state Division of Wildlife Resources, will still refer to them by their numbers as conservation officers track their movements on their newfound home of Antelope Island.

The two hens are among 30 grouse that will eventually be settled on the island after being trapped in Cache County in an effort to repopulate the species throughout Utah. It is the first transplant of its kind for this species, which numbers between 8,000 and 10,000 in Utah and has a limited hunting season.

"Right now they only occupy 10 percent of their historic range," Greer explained as he and state parks biologist Jolene Hatch carefully fastened a radio collar on one of the struggling birds.

Both Greer and Hatch are hopeful the 30 newcomers to the island will eventually produce a population numbering 150 to 200.

With that, Hatch said, comes the opportunity to enhance existing wildlife-viewing opportunities at the state park.

"People get excited about being able to have a hands-on experience out in nature and become more aware, rather than just reading about an animal in a book," Hatch said.

What she and Greer hope most for with the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse is the opportunity for people to visit a lek.

Derived from a Swedish term that means informal play for children, when it comes to the grouse, a lek is where strutting male birds show off their plumage and dance around to catch the eye of a hen.

"Normally, they just look like this little brown bird running through the grass. But when it comes to this courtship display, you see a whole different bird," Hatch said. "It's really cool to see."

After the mating display, the hens "come in and wander around and pick out the guy they want," Greer said.

Greer, who did his master's thesis on the species, said Antelope Island is a perfect home for the grouse because of its healthy abundance of brush and shrubs, where the hens will construct their nests.

He's been spending a lot of time in southern Cache County, where he sets traps for the grouse, checks them in the morning, and if he's lucky, he ends up with a few birds he puts in liquor-store boxes (ideal because of their size and cardboard divider). The birds are then taken by truck to their new home.

By the end of the transplant program, officials will relocate the grouse to 26 areas throughout the state.

Antelope Island 'Bio Blitz'

Antelope Island is home to a variety of wildlife: bison, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, California bighorn sheep, coyote and more. On May 8-9, the island is hosting a "Bio Blitz" in which groups can have opportunities to survey the wildlife and native plant species. For more information, call Crystal Carpenter at 801-721-9569.

E-mail: [email protected]