Hunting the Dwindling Sage Grouse 

An inherent quandary for a beleaguered bird

When the manila envelope arrived in the mail from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, I was concerned. Never before had I received such a large package from a government agency. Most of the time, my mail from the IDFG is a survey or a "you forgot to file your harvest report" notice. But this package was different. Inside was a note asking me to send in the wings of the sage grouse that I was planning to shoot.

The package had prepaid postage, waxed envelopes and a letter telling me about the importance of data collection. The letter even had specific directions on what part of the wing IDFG wanted: "Try to send us the wing with the fewest shot off, blood stained, dog chewed and otherwise damaged feathers." Got it.

It felt dirty, a little wrong, to package up dead upland game animals' wings and send them via the U.S. Postal Service. In fact, it reminded me of the movie Seven. But if it was what I had to do to hunt the birds, then I was going to comply.

But hunting sage grouse is not a guaranteed thing. They are in a difficult position around much of the country right now. A few hundred years ago, before roads and subdivisions divided the landscape, much of the West was unaltered tracts of sagebrush. These large areas allowed sage hen to roam freely and keep healthy population levels. But with the encroachment of man and habitat change, some areas have seen a sage grouse population loss of up to 80 percent. According to the Nature Conservancy, if left to the status quo, the sage grouse population is expected to decline by another 19 percent in the Intermountain West in the near future.

Populations are so small that hunting sage grouse is confined to a single week most years. Some years, in times of extreme drought or very cold and wet springs, the season is canceled altogether. Other years, with times of fire, only certain sections are closed to hunters. Each year, Fish and Game decides when and where the birds can be harvested. The information about hunting season often comes out only the month before the season starts. For a native bird that has been hunted for hundreds of years by Idaho's inhabitants, not having a season is a jagged little pill to swallow.

Compare the short season of sage grouse to other game birds. Quail, for example, have a season that's more than four months long, from September to January.

Idaho has a plan to keep the hunting and the conservation of sage grouse a priority. IDFG, the Nature Conservancy and several other agencies and nonprofits have banded together to help protect and restore sage grouse habitat.

"What we do is go in and remove the junipers that have encroached on the wetland habitat," said Nature Conservancy volunteer Ken Miracle about what that organization is doing to help the sage grouse population. "With the over-fighting of fires, junipers have started to thrive in nontraditional areas like meadows, and when they show up, meadows tend to dry up and go away. Junipers can absorb a lot of water."

To remove the junipers, the group will often use a tree chipper-like device.

"What we do is called mastication. We mulch and spread the juniper over the whole area," Miracle said. "This is a lot better than just felling the tree and letting it lie since that provides obstacles for cows, elk and deer."

The removal of junipers has a secondary benefit of removing roosts for hawks and other sage grouse predators. Most of the work the Nature Conservancy does is on private land.

As a human predator, I am amazed by the sage grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus. They belong, roughly, to the same family as the chicken. Thus their nicknames--sage hen and prairie chickens. The mature toms--male birds--can be the size of a small turkey. The birds do elaborate mating dances, puffing up their chests and letting out a bleating noise that can be heard for hundreds of yards. They sound like a helicopter when they are spooked from underneath some scrub. What the big birds lack in coordination and maybe even tact, they make up for in size. They are, on average, about twice the size of the other grouse in Idaho.

I know of a few wetland areas, called "stands," that hold sage grouse. If all goes well opening day I will be taking out my oldest son to harvest his first sage grouse. We will be high up in the Owyhee Mountains replicating a hunt in which five generations of my family have participated.

After having hunted sage grouse for a few years, wandering the high desert slopes, I have learned something about myself. Sage hen offer a prime example of a personal dilemma. I hunt them, I kill them and then eat them. But they taste like crap. It seems that no amount of Cajun seasoning can mask the kind of over-cooked liver flavor they have. Eating them is a chore, a responsible thing to do, not the joy that eating other wild game can be.

But I hunt them anyway. I want the predator-prey relationship on what I consider my home turf. I want to use my incisor teeth, my tools and my brain. I simply like to hunt the birds. I just wish they tasted better.

Miracle does not share my opinion.

"Sometimes I hunt the sage grouse for meat. ... I like the big old toms. Shooting them has less of an impact on the population, and they make excellent chili."

I think I need to get his recipe. I'll continue to hunt sage hen each year, one per day. Because I can. Because I want to. Because I am not sure how much longer I will be able to. And I will make sure to send in my wings with the fewest shot off, blood stained, dog chewed and otherwise damaged feathers.

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