Hunters shot at least 874 greater sage grouse hens in Wyoming last year, prompting a state grouse team member to question the wisdom of allowing a hunt of the imperiled species.
The state’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team meets Wednesday to address Brian Rutledge’s concerns. Rutledge is director of the National Audubon Society’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative and a SGIT member. His question looms as greater sage grouse numbers are down an estimated 81% nationwide in the last 53 years.
“What I’m asking for is a sit-down,” Rutledge said. “I want to hear why this is OK.”
Game and Fish asks hunters to deposit in roadside collection barrels one wing from each sage grouse taken. The sampling helps the agency estimate the population’s composition, among other things. In 2020, sportsmen and women deposited 2,156 wings statewide, including those from 980 chicks and 302 yearling or adult males.
The large number of hens shot troubled Rutledge. In the Southwest Wyoming region, for example, hunters dropped 294 yearling or adult female greater sage grouse wings in area barrels last year.
It’s hard to say exactly what impact hunting has. Biologists in most states and across the West don’t calculate specific grouse numbers, but Wyoming is believed to hold about 38% of the estimated 200,000-500,000 birds in the world.
Wyoming Game and Fish’s sage grouse and sagebrush biologist Leslie Schreiber is scheduled to review hunting impacts, plus the team’s preliminary numbers from spring breeding-ground lek counts, with SGIT Wednesday.
“Hunting is an important component of sage grouse management in Wyoming and has not [been] shown to have a negative impact on the population,” Schreiber said in a statement this spring, when Game and Fish released its wing counts. Those counts led Game and Fish to set Wyoming’s 2020 chick-to-hen ratio at 1.1 chicks/hen — the same as in 2019.
A population needs at least 1.5 chicks per hen to expand, Schreiber stated earlier this year. “It appears Wyoming’s sage grouse populations are flattening out at the trough of the [most recent population] cycle,” she said.
Hunting season set
Wyoming’s Game and Fish Commission in April set a 2021 fall hunting season of 12 days in one hunt area and two days in another. Two other areas remain closed. Hunters can kill two grouse a day and have four in possession. Those regulations may be modified after harvest data has been evaluated, the agency said.
Wyoming greater sage grouse seasons have been strategically reduced to protect the population, including breeding hens, said Tom Christiansen, former Game and Fish sage grouse program coordinator. Pushing the start date back allows successful hens and their chicks to be less reliant on water sources and wet areas in cooler weather and disperse across the landscape, enabling more to survive, he said.
“Recent investigations support hunting seasons that result in harvest rates low enough to allow populations to increase if habitat quality is not limiting population numbers,” he wrote in a 2010 paper.
“We don’t want to harvest more than 10% of the population in the fall,” he told WyoFile. “They should not be subjected to a 90-day hunting season or you would see population impacts.”
The ratio of female to male grouse taken by hunters is expected, he said, in part because there are more hens than cocks in the population.
“It’s counter intuitive,” Christiansen said of hunting a declining population. “But with the changes that have been made, it’s a managed thing.
“If a game bird population is so low that it cannot sustain a conservatively managed harvest, then it’s low enough to be listed,” as a threatened or endangered species, he said.
Habitat the lynchpin
Wyoming’s greater sage grouse Core Area Strategy seeks to direct disturbance away from prime grouse habitat but still allow multiple use, Christiansen said.
“Nobody’s saying that because of sage grouse populations there’s going to be no oil and gas, no grazing,” Christiansen said. Instead, there are restrictions; “this is how to properly graze,” he said, “how to restore a mine.”
Under the Core Area Strategy, “I don’t think you find a prohibition” of any activity he said, “except on a very small scale.”
The loss of so many hens troubles Rutledge, however. “I wonder if industry killed [that many] if we’d be OK with that,” he said. Further, the sagebrush ecosystem — the only habitat of greater sage grouse — is degraded, he said.
“One hundred years ago we grazed this to the bone and we’ve never repaired it,” he said. “We have to return the carrying capacity of this landscape.”
Rutledge is not yet taking a specific position on hunting, he said. But he wants “a full-blown policy on hunting, not a we’ve-always-done-this policy,” he said.
“I still don’t have an understanding why it’s OK,” Rutledge said.
This story has been corrected to properly reflect Tom Christiansen’s reason why a later hunting season leads to a lower harvest. It is because successful hens and chicks disperse from water sources, not because they become better fliers — Ed.