Areas for sage grouse hunting are limited following population decline
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There will not be a sage-grouse hunting season in Fremont County this fall, a go-to place for many grouse hunters during their lifetime.
The Idaho Fish and Game Commission eliminated all the hunts east of Interstate 15 due to lack of males on the spring breeding grounds last spring. These traditional breeding grounds are called “leks” and each spring Fish and Game personnel do a weekly count the number of sage grouse on each area.
West of Interstate 15 will be open except for a triangle area between Idaho Highways 22 and 33 for a two-day hunt, September 21 and 22, with a one bird daily limit. A large area in southern Idaho, covering most of Twin Falls, Cassia and Owyhee counties, will have a seven-day season for one bird each day from September 21 to 27.
The Department of Fish and Game’s data shows the statewide numbers dropped 52 per cent since 2016 and 25 per cent in the last year.
“The BLM (Bureau of Land Management) has been doing studies the last few year about what is causing the numbers to decline,” Curtis Hendricks, the Regional Wildlife Manager for the Upper Snake Region of the Fish and Game, said. “We will have to wait for their data to come out so we will know the causes of the decline. There is a lot going on as it is crazy out there.”
I visited with Hendricks and other personnel about wildfires, predation and the West Nile disease. Most acknowledged that all of these things may have had an impact on this largest grouse in the nation, but they were hesitant to put the blame on any one thing.
In March 2012, I started volunteering for the Fish and Game to document what traditional leks were still active and to look for new ones between Idaho Highway 33 and the Egin/Hamer Road from the Henrys Fork to Interstate 15.
The first year I visited 14 active leks with four of them hosting over 100 cocks displaying during the peak of the breeding season. By 2016 there were only six leks still active and only one of them had over 50 males active on their breeding grounds.
From 2016 until this last spring many of the leks and nesting areas have been destroyed by wildfire between ID 33 and the Dubois/Kilgore Road west of the Red Road. Hendricks said that wildfires do have an impact on the grouse, but does not know how much.
During the big years of the West Nile disease, during my travels across the desert looking for grouse I found numerous dead grouse and piles of feathers where grouse had been consumed by other predators. I visited with Fish and Game personnel about that and they did not appear too interested in it.
“We may have missed some of the impact from the West Nile with the grouse,” said Hendricks. “Whatever is happening out there with them, we are trying to stop their population decline and to rehabilitate it. Right now I don’t know if we can return to where they were.”
As a kid, my dad took me out to Camas Creek on the old rutted Red Road that seemed to have more mud puddles than dirt, to watch the male grouse do their showing off for the ladies. At that moment I fell in love with the with the Greater Sage Grouse and have a collection of hundreds of thousands of photographs of them. In 1959, I shot my first sage grouse near the shore of Camas Creek in Clark County that will be closed to hunting this year for the first time in my lifetime.
A person mentioned that this fall’s hunt may be the last hunt in our area for these large birds. I asked Hendricks if that might be the case.
“You know we had a big dip in their numbers in the mid to late 1990’s and they came back. As a department we have closed areas to hunting and reopened that area again,” Hendricks commented. “Hopefully in 10 years we will look back at a successful return of them and we can discuss ‘remember when.’”
I hope so, too. In the meantime I will buy my grouse stamp to support the efforts of the Fish and Game; will travel to the open area in Clark County to look for birds and hunters but will leave my shotgun cased up as I will never shoot another sage grouse as that one may be the one that brings the specie back. Happy hunting for those that may need a sage grouse fix.