Hunters shot an estimated 7,615 greater sage grouse in 2019, a biologist told Wyoming’s grouse team Wednesday as a key stakeholder challenged the state’s notion that regulated hunting does not harm the population.
Hunters responding to a survey provided the information for the 2019 take, Game and Fish Sage Grouse and Sagebrush Biologist Leslie Schreiber told the Sage Grouse Implementation Team. The numbers she unveiled add information about hunters’ impact on the species and puts previously released data in a larger context.
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Earlier this year the agency said sage grouse hunters in 2020 voluntarily deposited 2,156 wings — the agency asks for one from each grouse killed — in collection barrels set out during the season. Those wings help biologists determine the cock/hen/chick composition of the population.
But hunters kill far more sage grouse each year than the number of wings deposited, perhaps more than three times as many, according to information provided by Schreiber. Hunter harvest is “much larger than just the number of wings collected,” she said.
She presented a hunting overview as the team considered the impacts of hunting on a dwindling population. The number of grouse hen wings deposited in collection barrels in 2020 alarmed team member Brian Rutledge, a conservation/NGO representative and director of National Audubon Society’s Sagebrush Ecosystem Initiative, who asked for the SGIT discussion.
Schreiber cited two research papers, one by John Connelly and the other by James Sedinger, that say hunting generally does not have an impact on greater sage grouse populations when the harvest is below about 10% of the fall population.
But Rutledge said his reading of the literature shows researchers can’t support that conclusion. The question of whether hunting is “additive” to natural mortality or “compensatory” — having no effect on the following spring breeding population — is unsettled, he told the group.
“Every paper I’ve read, in the conclusion and sometimes in the beginning, says, we still don’t know if this is additive or compensatory,” Rutledge said. “I still think that we are guesstimating whether or not there is an impact and I think there needs to be [a] study.”
Clarify reasons for hunting
The sage grouse team reached no conclusion Wednesday and chairman Bob Budd asked for an in-depth discussion at the panel’s next meeting, including a bibliography of studies on hunting greater sage grouse. That meeting hasn’t been set, according to the Game and Fish website.
Wyoming needs to clarify its reasons for allowing hunting, suggested Paul Ulrich, a team member who represents the oil and gas industry. He works for Jonah Energy, a firm with sweeping holdings in Sublette County’s sage grouse country.
“I get asked all the time, ‘why are we as an industry required to shoulder remarkable amounts of what’s perceived as the burden of protecting sage grouse?’” he said, when hunters shoot 7,615 a year. “I think this discussion, if nothing else, will lead to us having a better answer or reduce seasons.”
Rutledge has drawn heat since he asked SGIT for the hunting discussion, he said. “The rumor mill … has been pretty wild about, you know, ‘the anti-hunting Audubon Society’ and ‘Rutledge is after our guns,’” he said.
Instead, “we’re after the biology of this bird,” Rutledge said, “and seeing it make it into the future.”
Schreiber referenced unpublished research by University of Wyoming’s Jeffrey Beck and Oregon State University’s Jonathan Dinkins to illuminate the issue. “From talking to Dr[s]. Beck and Dinkins, it sounds like state wildlife agencies are adept at adapting hunting seasons to meet the bird’s needs by adjusting bag limits, possession limits and season length, and that the harvest in Wyoming is unlikely to be suppressing sage grouse populations,” she said.
Right now, Rutledge said, published works don’t support the theory that regulated hunting is compensatory, not additive.
“Literally two out of three papers that I read said, we don’t know the difference yet,” he said. “So maybe these papers from Beck and company will change that. Right now, the general consensus is we don’t know.”
If the greater sage grouse population is declining at a rate of 3% a year Westwide, as some trends suggest, why not stem that loss with some of the 10% hunting cull, he asked.
How many grouse?
Wyoming charts grouse population health by counting strutting males on springtime breeding leks. Biologists and trained volunteers tallied about 21,500 strutting males in 2020, Schreiber told the panel.
Biologists use those observations to calculate the average number of males per active lek. Graphing the average over the years produces a trend that enables wildlife managers to suggest the population is increasing or declining, that greater sage grouse are doing well or diminishing.
Wyoming and most other Western states do not estimate the overall population, making it difficult to judge what percentage of the population a harvest of 7,615 birds constitutes.
Schreiber said one could make “rough estimates as a gut-check,” starting with lek counts of males. One would add an estimate of hens, which may outnumber cocks two-to-one.
A calculation would then add chicks, based on wing data. That data says there were about 1.1 chicks per successful hen in 2019 and 2020.
Schreiber did not make an overall population estimate for the panel. “ We’re committed to adapting hunting seasons to the population’s needs while balancing the public’s needs, wants and desires,” she told the group.
Schreiber outlined Game and Fish parameters, set in 2003, to guide hunting seasons. Those are based on whether the population is stable, increasing or declining.
“We don’t have stable/increasing populations right now, we have declining,” she said. Consequently, Game and Fish pushed back the traditional Labor Day season start to Sept. 15, reduced bag limits and closed hunting where populations dwindled.
The delayed Sept. 15 season opening is significant. When Game and Fish in the mid ‘90s moved the start of the season to mid-September, families with school-age children could no longer go to their traditional “chicken camp.” Hunters were attracted to other game as those seasons opened and the number of grouse shooters declined.
A later season opening also made it harder for hunters to come upon successful hens and their broods who congregate around wet areas and water during the summer, according to Schreiber and her predecessor, Tom Christiansen. In cooler weather, those groups spread out.
“You really have to lace up your hiking boots, go for a long walk to find them,” Schreiber said.
Game and Fish has reduced bag and possession limits over the years as well. Regulations for 2021 call for a two-bird daily bag limit, and no more than four in possession in open areas.
Game and Fish also has reduced the duration of the hunting season. The agency proposes a 13-day season this year in central Wyoming Area 1, from Evanston to Powell, Saratoga to Cody. It proposes a three-day season in parts of the northeast, excluding most of Crook and parts of Weston counties.
Game and Fish closed the season in the Snake River drainage and in the east.
Hunting remains important
“Hunting creates a constituency of sage grouse advocates,” Schreiber told the panel, “and eliminating hunting eliminates an ally.” Further, hunters provide valuable information — wings from harvested birds — and, for the first time last year, blood samples. Game and Fish collected 57 blood samples from hunters in 2020. All tested negative for West Nile virus, a worrisome disease.
The entire greater sage grouse hunting scheme is constructed around the understanding that the species differs from other upland birds, like pheasants, Schreiber said. Greater sage grouse live about three to six years — a longer life than pheasants — and have “relatively low productivity,” she told the group.
Pheasants have clutch sizes of 10 to 17 eggs, while sage grouse lay six to nine. Sage grouse also have relatively low over-winter mortality of 2% to 20% she said.
The carrying capacity of available habitat determines the population size of greater sage grouse and other wildlife, Schreiber told the group. “There’s only enough habitat for a certain number of animals throughout the year,” she said.
Normal wildlife reproduction produces a surplus of animals — relative to the carrying capacity — that is then culled by starvation, disease, predators, old age and severe weather. Wildlife managers seek to set hunting seasons that don’t add to those impacts, unless their goal is to reduce a population.
“This is the concept that all game agencies use when managing species,” she said.
SGIT chairman Budd said his first legal harvest was of a sage grouse, as it is for many others in Wyoming, and it introduced him to hunting and conservation. Such experiences play an important role in introducing youths to conservation, said Joy Bannon, another conservation representative on the panel who is the field director for the Wyoming Wildlife Federation.
“We have a lot of families that go to chicken camps,” she said. “They have their children there and they’re teaching their children about hunting, about conservation and to be advocates for conservation and for this particular species.”