Wyoming biologists recommend continued sage grouse hunting

LANDER, Wyo. " Biologists with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department recommend that the state continue with an 11-day hunting season for sage grouse this year.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether sage grouse should be protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

A federal judge in Idaho recently condemned the agency for failing to use the best available science when it decided not to list the bird two years ago.

In January 2005, the federal agency determined the chicken-sized bird was not in danger of extinction.

The bird's traditional habitat stretches across the West, from eastern California and Washington to Colorado, North Dakota and southern Canada.

Biologists with the Wyoming game department, as well as some conservationists, say degradation of the birds' habitat, not hunting, poses the most serious threat to the species' long-term survival.

The biologists are recommending the state stick to hunting regulations nearly identical to last year's.

"Hunting and sage grouse are compatible," said Tom Christiansen, the Game and Fish Department's program coordinator for sage grouse. "Hunting sage grouse results in some dead birds that will be replaced through reproduction next year, as long as there is good habitat."

Wyoming biologists are recommending that the hunting season for the birds start Sept. 20 and run through Sept. 30 with a daily bag limit of two birds. Department spokesman Eric Keszler said the state Game Commission will decide the hunting season.

Timing is an important consideration when establishing a hunt for the birds, Christiansen said. The department in the mid-1990s moved the sage grouse hunting season from early to late September. He said that has proven to be more appropriate and reduced the harvest.

"You don't want to hunt them in late August or early September, when they're concentrated on water sources and around vegetation associated with wet areas," Christiansen said.

"Later in September the chicks are bolder and more independent, not tied to the hen so much. And as it gets cooler in the fall, the chicks and hens start dispersing out into the sagebrush."

Toward the end of September, grouse begin to switch their diet from green vegetation to sage, Christiansen said. He said that disburses the population and makes the birds more difficult to find.

"In most landscapes in Wyoming, sage grouse are doing quite well," Christiansen said. "The concerns are where human impacts are increasing, in terms of subdivisions and high-density energy development.

You can have healthy sage grouse with a conservative hunting season. Conversely, you cannot have healthy sage grouse without good habitat."

Duane Short, a spokesman for the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, said his organization believes that preserving sage grouse habitat is the key to maintaining the bird's numbers.

The group also agrees that regulated hunting is not a real threat to the species in the long term.

"The issue for us, in terms of sage grouse population, is the oil and gas industry," Short said. "The proliferation of drilling pads is encroaching on sage grouse range, and in many cases the leks, which are their breeding grounds.

There are inadequate protections for the sage grouse in these areas. And they are extremely sensitive to disturbance."

Short said that it weren't for the encroachment by oil and gas drilling operations, hunters would have more opportunity to pursue the birds.

"We're not anti-hunting," Short said. "We feel like the real issue at hand is the habitat, and the oil and gas drilling on it."


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