Trying to bring back the sage grouseFor the fourth year in a row, North Dakota will not hold a sage grouse hunting season in 2011. This was pretty much a certainty after State Game and Fish Department biologists counted a record low number of male sage grouse in their spring survey, but it became official when the 2011 small game proclamation again did not include provisions for sage grouse season dates and bag limits.
By: By Doug Leier, North Dakota Outdoors, The Jamestown Sun
For the fourth year in a row, North Dakota will not hold a sage grouse hunting season in 2011.
This was pretty much a certainty after State Game and Fish Department biologists counted a record low number of male sage grouse in their spring survey, but it became official when the 2011 small game proclamation again did not include provisions for sage grouse season dates and bag limits.
North Dakota is on the edge of sage grouse range, and only the extreme southwestern corner of the state currently supports these large native birds. Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and some other western states have many more sage grouse and continue to have hunting seasons.
The most male sage grouse that Game and Fish biologists ever counted in one year was 542 in 1953. That count fell to less than 100 in 2008, the first year Game and Fish decided to close the hunting season, even biologists did not consider hunting as a contributing factor to the long-term population decline.
Since 2008, with no hunting season, the sage grouse population has continued to fall, reaching 63 observed male birds in 2011. “Our numbers are declining at a consistent rate of about five percent a year,” Aaron Robinson, Game and Fish upland game biologist said.
Just as North Dakota’s ruffed grouse are confined to expansive woodlands, sage grouse are tied to sagebrush. This plant only exists in the southwestern corner of the state, and it provides food, cover from the weather and predators, and nesting and brood habitat.
Unfortunately, about half of the sage habitat in North Dakota has disappeared from the landscape in the last five decades, and much of what remains is fragmented by energy development, agriculture and other human practices.
Because of this long-term habitat loss and other factors, sage grouse have found themselves in the news in more than just North Dakota. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service more than a year ago found that in 11 Western states, sage grouse warrant the protection of the Endangered Species Act. However, the service determined that other species were in more dire need of protection, so sage grouse were not added to the endangered species list for the time being.
Listing as an endangered species would mean that the service, and not state wildlife agencies, would assume primary management responsibility for sage grouse.
“The warranted but precluded designation gives states and other local entities a tremendous opportunity to develop and execute reasonable, and hopefully successful, conservation strategies,” Game and Fish wildlife chief Randy Kreil explained. “It’s an uphill battle to try and recover sage grouse in the state, no doubt about it. But listing the species probably wouldn’t help efforts to recover the bird.”
Instead, state and federal agencies, private landowners and oil and gas companies have formed a working group to help focus efforts on sage grouse recovery.
Numerous state and federal programs, including the Game and Fish Department’s Private Land Initiative, have dollars available to help landowners implement conservation practices that help improve sage grouse habitat. In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Bismarck has developed a source of big sage seedlings for restoration efforts.
No one is expecting an immediate sage grouse turn-around as these projects start appearing on the landscape, but a lot of folks are hoping for some early signs that a recovery is underway.
Leier is a biologist with the Game & Fish Department. He can be reached by email:email@example.com