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The dilemma of sage grouse

By Bernie Kuntz

Jake and I were driving on a gravel road in southwestern North Dakota in his old pickup in the late 1950s when he suddenly pulled over and announced, “Those are sage hens.” I exited the passenger door and the birds flushed, enormous birds, far larger than the sharptailed grouse I had been used to seeing. It was the first time I ever had seen a sage grouse.

In the mid-1970s I landed a job as associate editor of Wyoming Wildlife magazine for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and found that many Wyoming hunters were avid pursuers of sage grouse. Most Wyomingites called them “sage chickens”; some with disdain referred to them as “sage buzzards.” I hunted them myself, shot a few, didn’t like eating them, and chose to enjoy the incredible cottontail rabbit hunting one can find in Wyoming.

Nowadays, sage grouse are on the brink of being listed on the Endangered Species List (ESA), and it is not without cause. Sage grouse numbered in the untold millions when the West was settled; today there are an estimated 200,000 in 11 states where the bird is found.

Unlike the sharptailed grouse, which has been able to adapt to modern agriculture, the sage grouse has not been so fortunate. It needs sage brush. The bird lives in sage brush, lays its eggs in sage brush … without sage brush it cannot survive.

Unfortunately, landowners and the federal government (Bureau of Land Management) have for decades done their best to eradicate sagebrush, burning, chaining (dragging a chain between two tractors), spraying or plowing up sage brush. The results have been terrible for the sage grouse.

A glimmer of hope is that in 2010 the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service launched something called the Sage Grouse Initiative, and it has resulted in more than 700 ranchers voluntarily enrolling in the program. These landowners have agreed to implement rotational grazing, and it appears that the BLM and Forest Service are now working to protect sage grouse habitat on federal lands.

Having hunted in Nevada on several occasions and seen that state’s unending expanses of sage brush, I once asked a biologist how on earth the sage grouse could not be thriving in such terrain. He said, “Look at the grass beneath the sage — it is eaten by cattle. That’s the grass that sage grouse need for cover, insects for food and survival.” I am not a biologist and cannot refute his statements, but I did not see a great number of cattle in Nevada so still am puzzled.

I shot my last sage grouse about 20 years ago when Laurie and I were hunting pronghorn antelope in the big country of central Montana south of the Missouri River and north of the Judith Mountains. I haven’t shot one since and have no plans to do so. Biologists say that hunting has no effect on sage grouse numbers, and I can accept that, but I still am not interested in hunting them.

Interestingly, when some of the preservationist organizations began a drumbeat about a dozen years ago to get the sage grouse listed on the ESA, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks increased the daily bag limit by one bird per day. I thought that was a brainless response at the time, and my opinion has not changed.

I got into a friendly argument with a friend a few years ago, stating that sage grouse, while a western icon, were not in the same league as a sporting bird compared to the imported ring-necked pheasant. I still hold that position, but I do indeed hope the sage grouse survives, and without being listed on the ESA. Sage grouse are unique and a western phenomenon that deserve to be part of the western landscape forever.

Bernie Kuntz, a Jamestown native, has been an Outdoors columnist for The Sun since 1974