SCHIESS: Sage-grouse season opens, but fewer around due to wildfires
This weekend, the sage-grouse season opened for seven days in the Upper Snake River Valley desert areas. The limit of one bird per day and two in possession is clear, but several area counties have portions that are open while other portions of the counties are closed.
A season information brochure will be necessary for any hunter intending to hunt Bonneville, Bingham, Bannock, Power and Custer counties. A permit of $4.75 is required for anyone pursuing sage or sharp-tailed grouse.
I grew up loving to hunt sage grouse with my father and later with friends, but for the last four years I have purchased the special permit and not harvested a bird. This has been my choice as I travel the rough desert roads to watch for hunters and birds to try to gauge the pressure and availability of birds.
The last three years, opening day has found me parked at a water hole out in the desert where from 30 to 120 grouse are feeding as they walked to the water. I took a few pictures and then flushed the birds that flew into the nearby sage flats.
The battle to protect these birds are well documented with states bending over backwards to protect them from the “endangered” status that would virtually close the high deserts to all human recreation and work. Wyoming has gone as far as to try to raise them in captivity and release them like many states have done with pheasants.
Idaho, with the help of federal programs, have put radio collars and GPS tracking devices on adult birds to track their daily movements and survival. Leks, traditional displaying and breeding areas for the grouse, have been counted for many years to gauge population.
For several years I was assigned by the Idaho Fish and Game Department to check the status of traditional leks between Highway 33 and the Egin/Hamer Road. In 2011, there were 17 leks being utilized by sage grouse with two of them supporting almost 100 males and by 2016 there were only four leks left with two hosting about 30 males.
I found wild fires near or on the leks have destroyed the cover that was necessary for the grouse to be attracted to those breeding grounds. This summer the Deer Park fire raced through that area consuming most of the vegetation and destroying all but one of those leks. This week I traveled many of the roads looking for sage grouse and/or their tracks and found not a single bird or track.
So this week while the sage grouse season is open, I will spend several mornings out in the desert where I hope to find some of the birds that may have escaped the burning sage. Hopefully I will also meet some of the hunters that are “keeping the tradition of harvesting a sage grouse” intact. As one of my friends said, “I appreciate the opportunity to hunt them one more year as someday hunting them will not be available.”
If you are going to hunt these rare and beautiful birds, pick up a rules brochure and follow the rules. Also remember that sharp-tailed grouse are abundant in the same area, but they are not legal to kill until Oct. 1.
Be safe and enjoy the great outdoors. My hunt will be successful if I find a flock or two of sage grouse and watch them fly over the ridge showing me their tail feathers.