Sage Grouse at a Crucial Point

Sage grouse in springtime (SGI photo)

Sage grouse in springtime (SGI photo)

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t’s a distant memory, but I can still remember a day sometime around 1950. My dad was taking us fishing somewhere in southeastern Minnesota,. We were tooling down a backcountry road when he suddenly stopped the car.

He pointed to a bird along the edge of the field next to the road and said, “That’s a prairie chicken. There used to be all sorts of them, but I haven’t seen one for years.”

Dad wasn’t a hunter, but he was a good shot with a .22 rifle and as a tenant farmer in the Depression 1930s, he didn’t pass up opportunities to shoot a pheasant or prairie chicken to put food on the table.

The prairie chicken, or pinnated grouse to be more specific, is related to the sharp-tailed grouse. When the Midwest came under the plow in the 1800s, prairie chickens thrived in the varied habitat of native grasslands and croplands. In the 1890s, hunters came out by train to western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota to hunt prairie chickens, and would come back with wagonloads of birds. The numbers of chickens were unreal.

Prairie chicken habitat changed as remaining patches of native prairie went under the plow. Prairie chickens went on a decline.

In 1940, Minnesota’s fish and game agency closed the prairie chicken hunting season, in hopes that closing the season for a year or so would give the grouse a chance to bounce back.

That was over 70 years ago and the hunting season never reopened. Prairie chickens aren’t extinct. There are still isolated populations in Minnesota and North Dakota, and some huntable population of prairie chickens in South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.

The real moral of the story is that when a game animal, such as prairie chickens, gets taken off the hunting list, it tends to lose financial value. People no longer plan trips, book motel rooms, buy gas and shotgun shells. After a few years people forget about the good old days and they no longer advocate for habitat management for the species.

We’re at a similar crossroads with the iconic bird of the western plains, the sage grouse. Before European settlement of the western states, there were estimated to be something like 16 million sage grouse, a number that has declined to around 200,000 birds in half their historic range.

At the annual conference of the Outdoor Writers Association of America last month, the Sage Grouse Initiative (www.sagegrouseinitiative.com), a Montana-based project initiated by the Natural Resources Conservation Service in 2010, and joining resources of scientists, range managers, government agencies, and private landowners, made several presentations on sage grouse, and steps that can be taken to save them.

Sage grouse are extremely vulnerable to changes in habitat. Across much of the west, conifers, such as junipers, have been invading sage grouse habitat. Studies have demonstrated that as little as four percent of conifer coverage on grouse habitat is detrimental to sage grouse as the trees suck up vital moisture. The habitat is that fragile.

Other threats include wind energy developments, oil and gas drilling, and, essentially, anything that breaks up the landscape. And that’s the key to sage grouse survival: large, intact, natural landscapes.

Sage grouse have long migration routes of up to 100 miles between summer and winter ranges, and developments along those migration routes can harm grouse survival. In that respect, sage grouse and mule deer have similar needs.

Personally, I choose to not hunt sage grouse, primarily because my wife and I don’t enjoy eating them. I know; I just don’t know how to cook them. That’s beside the point. Sage grouse hunting is a cherished tradition among many Montana hunters, especially here in southwest Montana.

Lots of attention is being given to sage grouse management, and at many levels of government and conservation groups. I’m pleased that Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in its management plan, is determined to keep public hunting a part of sage grouse management.

It may be difficult for some to understand, but we don’t want Montana sage grouse to go the way of Minnesota’s prairie chicken, and hunting is part of the solution.

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