A greater sage grouse hen with her brood. (Tom Koerner/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Hunters shot an estimated 7,615 greater sage grouse in 2019, a biologist told Wyoming’s grouse team Wednesday as a key stakeholder challenged the state’s notion that regulated hunting does not harm the population.

Hunters responding to a survey provided the information for the 2019 take, Game and Fish Sage Grouse and Sagebrush Biologist Leslie Schreiber told the Sage Grouse Implementation Team. The numbers she unveiled add information about hunters’ impact on the species and puts previously released data in a larger context.

Earlier this year the agency said sage grouse hunters in 2020 voluntarily deposited 2,156 wings — the agency asks for one from each grouse killed — in collection barrels set out during the season. Those wings help biologists determine the cock/hen/chick composition of the population.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department Sage Grouse Coordinator Leslie Schreiber works in the field in April 2019 during an effort to translocate sage grouse to North Dakota. (Mark Davis/Powell Tribune)

But hunters kill far more sage grouse each year than the number of wings deposited, perhaps more than three times as many, according to information provided by Schreiber. Hunter harvest is “much larger than just the number of wings collected,” she said. 

She presented a hunting overview as the team considered the impacts of hunting on a dwindling population. The number of grouse hen wings deposited in collection barrels in 2020 alarmed team member Brian Rutledge, a conservation/NGO representative and director of National Audubon Society’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative, who asked for the SGIT discussion.

Schreiber cited two research papers, one by John Connelly and the other by James Sedinger, that say hunting generally does not have an impact on greater sage grouse populations when the harvest is below about 10% of the fall population.

But Rutledge said his reading of the literature shows researchers can’t support that conclusion. The question of whether hunting is “additive” to natural mortality or “compensatory” — having no effect on the following spring breeding population — is unsettled, he told the group.

“Every paper I’ve read, in the conclusion and sometimes in the beginning, says, we still don’t know if this is additive or compensatory,” Rutledge said. “I still think that we are guesstimating whether or not there is an impact and I think there needs to be [a] study.”

Clarify reasons for hunting

The sage grouse team reached no conclusion Wednesday and chairman Bob Budd asked for an in-depth discussion at the panel’s next meeting, including a bibliography of studies on hunting greater sage grouse. That meeting hasn’t been set, according to the Game and Fish website.

Wyoming needs to clarify its reasons for allowing hunting, suggested Paul Ulrich, a team member who represents the oil and gas industry. He works for Jonah Energy, a firm with sweeping holdings in Sublette County’s sage grouse country.

A graph of estimated greater sage grouse harvested that was presented to the grouse team. (screen grab/Wyoming Game and Fish)

“I get asked all the time, ‘why are we as an industry required to shoulder remarkable amounts of what’s perceived as the burden of protecting sage grouse?’” he said, when hunters shoot 7,615 a year. “I think this discussion, if nothing else, will lead to us having a better answer or reduce seasons.”

Rutledge has drawn heat since he asked SGIT for the hunting discussion, he said. “The rumor mill … has been pretty wild about, you know, ‘the anti-hunting Audubon Society’ and ‘Rutledge is after our guns,’” he said.

Instead, “we’re after the biology of this bird,” Rutledge said, “and seeing it make it into the future.”

Schreiber referenced unpublished research by University of Wyoming’s Jeffrey Beck and Oregon State University’s Jonathan Dinkins to illuminate the issue. “From talking to Dr[s]. Beck and Dinkins, it sounds like state wildlife agencies are adept at adapting hunting seasons to meet the bird’s needs by adjusting bag limits, possession limits and season length, and that the harvest in Wyoming is unlikely to be suppressing sage grouse populations,” she said.

Right now, Rutledge said, published works don’t support the theory that regulated hunting is compensatory, not additive.

“Literally two out of three papers that I read said, we don’t know the difference yet,” he said. “So maybe these papers from Beck and company will change that. Right now, the general consensus is we don’t know.”

If the greater sage grouse population is declining at a rate of 3% a year Westwide, as some trends suggest, why not stem that loss with some of the 10% hunting cull, he asked.

How many grouse?

Wyoming charts grouse population health by counting strutting males on springtime breeding leks. Biologists and trained volunteers tallied about 21,500 strutting males in 2020, Schreiber told the panel.

Biologists use those observations to calculate the average number of males per active lek. Graphing the average over the years produces a trend that enables wildlife managers to suggest the population is increasing or declining, that greater sage grouse are doing well or diminishing.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department Wildlife Biologist Dean Clause examines the wing of a hunter-shot greater sage grouse to determine its sex and age. The annual fall examinations help the department predict population trends. (Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

Wyoming and most other Western states do not estimate the overall population, making it difficult to judge what percentage of the population a harvest of 7,615 birds constitutes.

Schreiber said one could make “rough estimates as a gut-check,” starting with lek counts of males. One would add an estimate of hens, which may outnumber cocks two-to-one.

A calculation would then add chicks, based on wing data. That data says there were about 1.1 chicks per successful hen in 2019 and 2020.

Schreiber did not make an overall population estimate for the panel. “ We’re committed to adapting hunting seasons to the population’s needs while balancing the public’s needs, wants and desires,” she told the group.

Schreiber outlined Game and Fish parameters, set in 2003, to guide hunting seasons. Those are based on whether the population is stable, increasing or declining.

“We don’t have stable/increasing populations right now, we have declining,” she said. Consequently, Game and Fish pushed back the traditional Labor Day season start to Sept. 15, reduced bag limits and closed hunting where populations dwindled.

The delayed Sept. 15 season opening is significant. When Game and Fish in the mid ‘90s moved the start of the season to mid-September, families with school-age children could no longer go to their traditional “chicken camp.” Hunters were attracted to other game as those seasons opened and the number of grouse shooters declined.

A later season opening also made it harder for hunters to come upon successful hens and their broods who congregate around wet areas and water during the summer, according to Schreiber and her predecessor, Tom Christiansen. In cooler weather, those groups spread out.

Large areas of Wyoming are closed to greater sage grouse hunting. (Wyoming Game and Fish)

“You really have to lace up your hiking boots, go for a long walk to find them,” Schreiber said.

Game and Fish has reduced bag and possession limits over the years as well. Regulations for 2021 call for a two-bird daily bag limit, and no more than four in possession in open areas.

Game and Fish also has reduced the duration of the hunting season. The agency proposes a 13-day season this year in central Wyoming Area 1, from Evanston to Powell, Saratoga to Cody. It proposes a three-day season in parts of the northeast, excluding most of Crook and parts of Weston counties.

Game and Fish closed the season in the Snake River drainage and in the east.

Hunting remains important

“Hunting creates a constituency of sage grouse advocates,” Schreiber told the panel, “and eliminating hunting eliminates an ally.” Further, hunters provide valuable information — wings from harvested birds — and, for the first time last year, blood samples. Game and Fish collected 57 blood samples from hunters in 2020. All tested negative for West Nile virus, a worrisome disease.

The entire greater sage grouse hunting scheme is constructed around the understanding that the species differs from other upland birds, like pheasants, Schreiber said. Greater sage grouse live about three to six years — a longer life than pheasants — and have “relatively low productivity,” she told the group.

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Pheasants have clutch sizes of 10 to 17 eggs, while sage grouse lay six to nine. Sage grouse also have relatively low over-winter mortality of 2% to 20% she said.

The carrying capacity of available habitat determines the population size of greater sage grouse and other wildlife, Schreiber told the group. “There’s only enough habitat for a certain number of animals throughout the year,” she said.

Normal wildlife reproduction produces a surplus of animals — relative to the carrying capacity — that is then culled by starvation, disease, predators, old age and severe weather. Wildlife managers seek to set hunting seasons that don’t add to those impacts, unless their goal is to reduce a population.

“This is the concept that all game agencies use when managing species,” she said.

SGIT chairman Budd said his first legal harvest was of a sage grouse, as it is for many others in Wyoming, and it introduced him to hunting and conservation. Such experiences play an important role in introducing youths to conservation, said Joy Bannon, another conservation representative on the panel who is the field director for the Wyoming Wildlife Federation.

“We have a lot of families that go to chicken camps,” she said. “They have their children there and they’re teaching their children about hunting, about conservation and to be advocates for conservation and for this particular species.”

A male greater sage grouse struts. (Mark Gocke/Wyoming Game and Fish)

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. I can understand the detrimental effects of drilling and roads on SG habitat. Here in SW Idaho we have the effects of virtually uncontrolled cattle grazing (despite BLM denials). Cattle graze in some areas year round. In prime grouse habitat cattle are turned out when flowering of native vegetation begins. Grouse chicks are deprived of insects associated with these wildflowers. Cattle congregate in all riparian areas and destroy seeps and springs in the uplands so vital to survival of young grouse. Overgrazed uplands are invaded by cheat grass and medusa head annuals which lead to massive wildfires and proliferation of more exotic annuals. Overgrazing by cattle is the biggest threat to sage grouse populations in SW Idaho.

    Is grazing by livestock not also a major threat to grouse in Wyoming?

  2. What is often left out of the discussion about hunting sage grouse is that while hunters “take” birds, they do not “take” the bird’s habitat. In fact, hunting and hunters account for a major portion of the support for sage grouse conservation and their habitat. On the other hand, other users of our public lands have destroyed and fragmented sage grouse habitat (not that they have to), which eliminates the bird’s ability to sustain itself. Our “Boom & Bust” cycles have not only negatively effected our wildlife, they are also not helpful for Wyoming’s long term economy. Why is the state having to clean up >10k coal bed methane wells and thousands of miles of roads abandon by the people overly profiting from this industry with the nod or our elected state officials?
    In Wyoming, out of the top 19 threats to sage grouse as ranked by an expert panel convened by the USF&WS, the Oil & Gas Industry was identified as the #1 threat, hunting was ranked #17. Thank you for putting the Jonah Field, and densely drilling, in the most productive sage grouse habitat in the world. Which as predicted, decimated their population in the area. The Oil and Gas Industry could have done much more to limit impacts on wildlife (Mule Deer down >50%) there and managed their business more long term. In addition, in the NE portion of the state, SG hunting was reduced to a 2 day season in 2010 due to all the mismanaged coal bed methane development which resulted in sage grouse being decimated by West Nile Virus and habitat loss/fragmentation. Any improvement in sage grouse numbers in the NE section of the state in 10 years? If you look at the sage grouse hunt area map, Areas 2 & 3 have been closed to hunting since 2000/2001. Any increase in population in these areas in 20 years? Since 2000, the closed areas are only getting larger not smaller. The current SG hunt area map indicates that ~1/3 of the state is already closed to hunting, about another 1/3 has a 2 day hunting season, and SG hunting days and bag limits vastly reduced over the years. in the remainder of the state. What this is telling us is that our existing management of sage grouse habitat is not working. It has been estimated that in 1991 that 47,918 grouse were taken by hunters, and now in 2019 7,615 were taken. All things staying equal, where did all the 1,128,484 birds go [(2019-1991) x (47,918-7,615)] that were not taken by hunters over these 28 years? And the population of sage grouse is still declining? How about in other states that have closed all hunting seasons, any population improvement there? At some point, the loss of hunting and the loss of hunters support for habitat means less habitat and less birds. Habitat is the key to the bird’s survival.
    New efforts of Wyoming’s SG compensatory mitigation program and game farming of SG with the end game of relocating birds back into previously proven un-inhabitable habitat (because the bids no longer exist there) are really just money redistribution schemes. These schemes also move birds living on public lands onto private lands. Do these programs conserve or improve any SG habitat?

    The only way we can keep our privilege of hunting (anything), keep our jobs and our amazing standard of living in Wyoming, is if all stakeholders of our public lands stop the BS and start working together. We cannot let greed ruin our Wyoming life style. Our natural resources can be developed while also maintaining our wildlife’s habitat. Anything less is not acceptable. Our past mistakes are showing us clear direction. Studies of the birds can be done until there are no birds left. Here is the simple equation: No Suitable Habitat = No Birds. No amount of studying changes this.
    It is my opinion that closing hunting will not reverse the bird’s downward population trend because hunting and hunters work to conserve their habitat. How about the other stakeholders of our public lands? Are they suggesting ways they can continue their use while conserving wildlife habitat, or are they blaming others for the result of their poor management and past mistakes. Sounds like they are planning another round of the next boom and bust cycle for Wyoming and promising funding for more studies of what effects the additional loss of wildlife habitat will have.

    A very informative paper on this subject is “Hunting and Sage-Grouse:
    A Technical Review of Harvest Management
    On a Species of Concern in Wyoming” By Tom Christiansen.

  3. I’d like Paul Ulrick with Jonah Energy and a member of the Sage Grouse Implementation Team (SGIT) to tell us how many sage grouse are killed annually as a result of oil, gas, and surface mining activities in Wyoming.

    When the SGIT quits allowing the destruction of the last best sage-grouse habitat to occur in sage-grouse core population areas so that Mr. Ulrich can drill more gas wells, then I might consider giving up my annual right and passage of sage-grouse hunting.

    I wonder if Mr. Ulrich was as fortunate as me to grow up in Wyoming and have a father who introduced him to hunting and fishing at an early age. I hope Mr. Ulrich had the opportunity to hunt, for the very first time as a youth with his father, sage-grouse in Wyoming. It is one of the fondest memories that I have of my late father. I’m not ready to deny those memories to all the young sage-grouse hunters before us.

    Yes Mr. Ulrich, I won’t deny that your industry shoulders a large responsibility
    in protecting the greater sage-grouse, but you need to do more. You could start by avoiding drilling gas wells in the sage-grouse winter concentration areas associated with the Natural Pressurized Lance gas development area.

  4. The Wyoming Game and Fish knows more and better than mother nature.

    Stop hunting this birds for several years and let their numbers increase. Then transplant them into areas where their numbers are low.

    This must be too easy?

  5. Paul Ulrich:

    “I get asked all the time, why are we as an industry required to shoulder remarkable amounts of what’s perceived as the burden of protecting sage grouse when hunters shoot 7,615 a year?”

    Guessing it is all about the hunting, that’s why. We protect the birds so we can kill more. If the extractive industry is killing birds, less to hunt. Additionally, Wyoming doesn’t want to have the bird’s status changed to protected under the Endangered Species Act which might really burden the extractive industry so it needs to nip the needless declines caused by industry to protect both the bird and hunting. Cheatgrass may be the biggest threat to the bird. Perhaps more Rejuvra in addition to hunter/industry management is needed.

  6. I am always happy to see these birds on my trips to Wyoming. I hope that someone is looking out for them.

  7. Schrieber searches for papers to justify overhunting—apparently she has no background in conservation biology (despite fact that her job that would seem to demand it) which has as its basic idea—the PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE—err on side of conservation when dealing with threatened populations. See my book Wildlife Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2017). https://www.wildlifepolitics.org/