Sage Grouse hunting amid concerns for the species
‘Conservative hunting seasons do not have a detrimental impact on most populations in Wyoming’
by Wyoming Game & Fish
September 1, 2010
One of the most common questions Wyoming Game and Fish Department personnel have been hearing is: "If the sage grouse is a candidate to be listed as a threatened species, then how can you have a hunting season for the bird?"
"The Wyoming Game and Fish Department understands the question and appreciates the concern for this trademark game bird of the West," said Tom Christiansen, the Game and Fish’s Sage Grouse Program coordinator. "The most significant threats to sage grouse have been shown to be changes to sagebrush habitats and effects of human disturbance."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the federal agency that makes the decision whether or not to list a species as threatened or endangered. The Service must consider "overutilization" (hunting and other activities that may result in the death of individual animals) in this process. In its March 2010 listing decision the Service said the greater sage grouse is not threatened by "overutilization," but states should continue to carefully manage hunting. With that responsibility, the Game and Fish has analyzed in depth the impact of hunting on the species.
"The conclusion is conservative hunting seasons do not have a detrimental impact on most populations in Wyoming," Christiansen said.
This conclusion is consistent with Wyoming’s citizen-based state and local sage grouse working groups’ conservation plans completed between 2003 and 2007 that also addressed hunting issues and provided management recommendations. It is also consistent with a July 2010 decision of the directors of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies that calls for the states to continue to adjust hunting seasons using the best available science and guidelines, current sage grouse population data, and local circumstances that can change each year - such as West Nile virus.
The department recognizes the relationship of hunting and sage grouse is not as simple as pheasant or partridge seasons, where hunting basically siphons some of the population destined to perish in the winter anyway. Pheasants and partridge are relatively short-lived birds - seldom living past two - but have lots of young to replace the adults. Sage grouse are a much longer-lived bird (often living over six years) with smaller broods and high overwinter survival. Therefore there are fewer adult sage grouse to be replaced and the number of harvestable sage grouse is lower than for an equal population of pheasants.
Well before there was much public concern about the future of sage grouse and before environmental organizations were filing petitions to list the species, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department was addressing the question: "How should hunting seasons be structured for the benefit of the species?"
The result was a restructure of the sage grouse hunting season in 1995. The opening date was moved back to late September to reduce the harvest of successful breeding hens. A study near Farson showed more hens are harvested when the hunting season opens on Sept. 1 than during years with a mid-September opening date. When the season begins after Sept. 15, hens with chicks are mixed with other groups of grouse scattered across upland sites and away from wet sites where they concentrated in the summer. This mixing and dispersal makes adult hens less vulnerable to hunter harvest. The later date also reduces pressure, likely because more hunters are off in pursuit of big game.
Although the department has been addressing the impacts of sage grouse hunting for decades, it continues to monitor and evaluate the issue. Each year the department analyzes the seasons and recommendations from field employees and the public. That has resulted in additional season and regulation adjustments including: closing the season in the Jackson area and eastern Wyoming, closing three counties in 2003 due to West Nile virus outbreak and reducing bag limits in other areas.
Hunting also indirectly benefits the bird. "Hunters have been and continue to be the greatest advocates for wildlife," Bill Rudd, assistant Wildlife Division chief said. "We want hunters in the field to maintain this advocacy."
In addition to fueling a knowledgeable sage grouse constituency, hunting also produces sage grouse information and statistics that would be very difficult to obtain except through very costly radio-telemetry studies. "Wings from hunter-harvested birds are used to determine the ratio of hens to chicks, which provides an index to annual chick production," Christiansen said. "In conjunction with population trend counts, these data contribute to understanding the dynamics of sage grouse populations."
The department continuously collects data on sage grouse and monitors populations closely. "Wyoming continues to be blessed with large numbers of sage grouse as shown by the over 44,500 males counted on breeding grounds in 2006," Rudd said.
"If populations drop significantly in the future the department will act quickly to further restrict hunting," Christiansen said, "but until such a time, regulated hunting, as recommended by existing state and local conservation plans, is a sustainable multiple-use activity similar to well-managed grazing and energy development."
Wyoming’s sage grouse season for the majority of the state is Sept. 18-30. For northeast Wyoming, excluding the Black Hills, the season is Sept. 18-20. The bag limit in both areas is two daily and four in possession. The season is closed in southeast Wyoming, extreme northeast Wyoming and the Jackson area. Consult the upland game bird regulations for specific details.
A detailed technical review of hunting and sage grouse is available on the department’s website at