Editor’s note: This story originally aired on September 25, 2015
Last weekend Wyoming’s annual sage grouse hunt began. Many hunters were worried that this could be the last hunt in a while, since the bird was facing the possibility of getting listed as an endangered species. When the chicken-sized bird started seeing declines in the 1990’s, some states stopped sage grouse hunting altogether. Wyoming continued its hunt after changing the start date and limiting the take. That will continue, even as the state continues mandated conservation efforts.
It’s a beautiful Saturday afternoon in southern Wyoming as Jeff Beck and his 9-year-old yellow Labrador retriever, appropriately named Sage, pull up to one of his favorite hunting spots. Beck said the start of the sage grouse season is special for him.
“I went on my first sage grouse hunt when I was 16 or 17, and I have probably gone at least 30 years in total since I began hunting sage grouse. “
It’s a sunny day and the view is amazing, miles of open space with some rolling hills, and sagebrush covering the landscape making it difficult to walk at times. For Beck there is nothing like it.
“There’s something about sage grouse hunting that is hard to describe. You are in a place that tends to be fairly windy, it smells like sagebrush, you are walking through sagebrush and you may walk all day and never see a bird and then everything can change so quickly, so maybe that’s why it’s so exciting.”
Back in Laramie, Beck’s laboratory is actually studying the impacts of hunting sage grouse. Researcher Jon Dinkins is conducting some of the studies. He said those impacts are difficult to determine, because if agencies like the Game and Fish think the numbers are down, they limit the amount of birds that can be hunted.
“So It’s really difficult to tease apart whether it’s the hunter harvest itself that was causing the decline, or whether it’s another factor, or you’re in a cycle or so on.”
But Dinkins said wildlife agencies are watching the numbers closely.
“Range-wide state management agencies have really put a lot of effort into reducing the effects of hunter harvest.”
Some states like Nevada dropped sage grouse hunting when the local population dropped substantially. Wyoming Game and Fish Department Deputy Chief of Wildlife Scott Smith said they worked hard to preserve the hunt in Wyoming.
“It’s a traditional hunt, a lot of youngsters, some of their first upland bird hunting experiences are with pursuing sage grouse on a beautiful September afternoon.”
Smith said the Department pushed back the start date of the hunt to allow hens to hide and have chicks. They also disallowed hunting in areas where sage grouse numbers were low, shortened the season, and limited the numbers that hunters could take. Smith said their numbers show that this approach and other conservation efforts have worked.
“We feel there is a healthy population of sage grouse and a conservative hunting season does not lead to population decline.”
Hunters also let the department know how sage grouse are doing. Most population counts are done in the spring, but in the fall hunters are asked to collect feathers of the birds they shoot. Dinkins said that tells them a lot.
“They have a much better feel for how sage grouse are reproducing across years with the data that they are getting from the hunters.”
As a researcher of sage grouse and a hunter, Beck admits that there are occasions when he questions whether he should hunt.
“It is a conflict, it is a conflict, and I have friends…fellow researchers that would never hunt sage grouse because they personally feel that it’s a large conflict of interest for them. For myself I recognize the role the hunters play in conservation and I also use the meat. It’s something that I enjoy to eat as well.”