Sage Grouse Hunting Open Again in Montana for Month of September

 

Expanded opportunities for sage grouse hunting will be offered this year in Montana as bird populations have rebounded well after two years of favorable spring weather conditions.

Though the brief decline and subsequent bounce back of sage grouse numbers can likely be attributed to weather and normal cycles in bird populations, the population numbers and quick rebound are encouraging, said Catherine Wightman, wildlife habitat and Farm Bill coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

"These kinds of population cycles are normal, what we're hoping to do with our habitat conservation efforts and monitoring work is to keep the dips in population from being so dramatic," Wightman said.

Sage grouse season opens Sept. 1 and runs through the month, closing Sept. 30. The bag limit is two birds with a possession limit of four.

Sage grouse populations struggle with habitat fragmentation, impacts from energy development and the conversion of sagebrush steppe habitat to cropland. However, decades of efforts at monitoring sage grouse and conserving their habitat in Montana has paid off. In 2015 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided the bird didn't warrant listing on the Endangered Species List because of ongoing habitat conservation work in Montana and throughout their range.

Under the FWP Sage Grouse Conservation Plan, adopted in 2005, FWP will recommend to the Fish and Wildlife Commission sage grouse hunting season closures when populations dip below 45 percent of their long term average. However, before 2014 the Commission had yet to use that rationale to close sage grouse hunting in the state.

In fact, the plan outlined conditions for closing hunting, but didn't have provisions for when hunting would be re-opened. When the hunting season was closed in 2014, the Commission approved conditions for the season to be re-opened. One of the conditions being that sage grouse lek counts were higher in one year than the long-term average. That condition was met this spring, Wightman said. Leks are locations where sage grouse males conduct their mating rituals, which is comprised of strutting, fanning tail feathers and making popping noises with their bulbous air sacs.

Weather watching

Weather conditions play an important role in sage grouse numbers from year to year, particularly during the time when sage grouse hens are incubating eggs in the nest and when the chicks are first hatched, she said.

"After they hatch, they're so vulnerable," Wightman said. "They can walk, but they're downy little fuzz balls walking through the sagebrush. They can't fly and they don't have adult feathers to insulate them."

After several years of wet springs with flooding and hail, the juvenile recruitment was way down in 2013 and overall numbers dropped to some of the lowest since 1980.

However, one good year of recruitment made all the difference.

Weather was favorable for sage grouse in the spring of 2014, so while the overall number of adults were down, the crop of new birds was really good. The males born in the spring of 2014 were displaying on the leks in 2015. This year lek counts in all three FWP sage grouse management areas were above the long-term trends by an average of 17 percent statewide.

Counting leks

For trend data and management decisions, biologists count displaying male sage grouse during the mating period on leks around the state. The birds return to the same leks year after year, and while there are hundreds around Montana, FWP biologists focus on 88 for their counts that influence management decisions, Wightman said.

These 88 leks have long-term data strings with some going back to 1980 and provide a solid foundation for analyzing sage grouse numbers.

"We use those as barometers for population trends," she said.

Hunting and management

While some may be concerned that sage grouse hunting is re-opened, especially considering the effort FWP, the state and landowners have made and continue to make in ensuring population numbers remain within naturally fluctuating ranges to keep the birds off the ESA, the fact is hunting has little impact on bird numbers.

In the past 16 years, FWP biologists have collared about 1,300 adult birds in areas where hunting was allowed. So far only nine of those birds have been killed by hunters, said John Vore, FWP game management bureau chief.

"That's a very low number," he said. "The effects of hunting, at least in Montana, are very minimal."

Additionally, though the Montana management plan allows for a more standard hunting season with a bag limit of four birds, the Fish and Wildlife Commission, with recommendations from FWP staff, decided on a conservative season structure with a two-bird bag limit and a season only open from Sept. 1 – Sept. 30.

The conservative approach seemed prudent considering the sage grouse in Montana and the rest of the region will have another ESA review in 2020.

Still, Montana's sage grouse success story is one worth applauding.

"We're the only state in the West that's completely open for sage grouse and we have the longest hunting season," Wightman said.

The continued focus from a management standpoint will be on habitat conservation and making strides toward maintaining stable long-term trends – to especially try and keep the numbers during the low years from getting too low, if possible. The fact is you can still have good years in terms of population, but have declining numbers over all.

"Conservation of habitat is important so we can ensure the long-term trends of the populations are stable," she said. "We aren't trying to get back to the sage grouse populations of the 1960s, but we think we can maintain a steady population by maintaining good habitat and that's the goal."

 

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