Wyoming’s sage grouse hunting is in the spotlight
Spring arrived in Wyoming like it does every year. Warm afternoons and late-season blizzards swept back and forth across the sagebrush steppe. Through the oscillating weather, male sage grouse congregated on breeding grounds, or leks. They performed their elaborate dances for discerning females. After breeding, females wandered off in search of nesting sites.
Meanwhile, in a boardroom in Cheyenne, officials discussed the future of hunting these dancing birds. The Sage Grouse Implementation Team (SGIT), which is appointed by the governor, keeps Wyoming’s sage grouse populations viable. This includes keeping them off the endangered species list. Wyoming is one of the most popular places to hunt sage grouse. The state holds about 40 percent of the worldwide population of this iconic game bird.
A Discussion on Wyoming Hunting Regulations
Last spring, a SGIT member requested a discussion of Wyoming’s sage grouse hunting regulations. This set off a flurry of controversy. SGIT’s recommendations are based on their responsibility to keep sage grouse healthy across the state. Even though SGIT can’t change hunting regulations, they can make recommendations to the governor and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD).
However, this is not the first time Wyoming’s sage grouse hunting has been in the spotlight. Every few years, the same concerns arise regarding sage grouse hunting. Some folks wonder why the state spends so much money to save these birds, only to have hunters kill thousands of them each fall. Others see stricter regulations as unnecessary and an affront to Wyoming’s hunting traditions.
“We all want to see the bird stay off of the endangered species list. If the numbers are to the point that we have to stop…hunting, it is a sign to the feds that the bird needs listed,” said Joy Bannon. Bannon is the policy director for the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, a non-profit organization that advocates for conservation and outdoor opportunities for hunters and anglers. She is one of two SGIT members that represent the interests of conservation groups.
“I want to make sure as SGIT, we’re looking at all aspects of this species. I think we’re guesstimating whether or not an impact,” said Joy’s conservation group counterpart, Brian Rutledge. He’s the SGIT member who requested the review. Until recently, Rutledge represented the National Audubon Society, a group well known for its habitat conservation work. He’s also a rancher who grew up hunting.
Compensatory vs. Additive Mortality
Of the few existing studies on hunting impacts on a population, the most extensive suggest that limited hunting is compensatory, not additive. With compensatory mortality, sage grouse that are harvested during hunting season would have died anyway before the next breeding season. However, past research also highlights how longer seasons, earlier seasons, and larger bag limits can easily shift hunting impacts into the additive category; these birds would not have otherwise died that season. Additive mortality contributes to population declines. This is especially true for isolated populations.
“The guidelines suggested that no more than ten percent of the autumn population be removed through harvest,” said Leslie Schreiber, the WGFD lead sage grouse biologist. She says the agency relies on guidelines set forth by researchers in 2000 to dictate hunting regulations. However, she added, “That assumes we have detailed and specific knowledge of population size in September and October. Unfortunately, it is not possible to accurately…estimate true sage grouse population abundance at this time.”
Information on Sage Grouse Data Collection
Wildlife biologists collect harvest data via hunter surveys. About 13 percent of Wyoming upland bird license holders voluntarily report their harvest every year. Wing collection barrels help assess population dynamics. However, the percentage of hunters that choose to deposit grouse wings is unknown. These barrels are only in the most popular hunting areas around the state.
Wildlife managers compare harvest data with population estimates. These estimates come from spring lek counts. Scientists record the number of male grouse observed dancing at historic lek locations. Then, they use a multiplier to estimate the numbers of females and juveniles.
In 2020, biologists observed about 19,000 male sage grouse on leks. In healthy populations, there are more females and chicks than males. If that assumption holds true, it puts the statewide sage grouse population at around 70,000 to 80,000. In 2020, WGFD estimated that hunters harvested about 7,200 sage grouse; this number was extrapolated from harvest surveys. Therefore, 2020’s harvest was about nine to ten percent of the population.
When WGFD sets season regulations, these spring lek count results aren’t available yet. Population estimates from prior years inform wildlife management decisions. Overall, populations are trending down. In fact, every year since 2016 has brought fewer males into spring leks statewide. Some biologists think that this decline is part of the grouse’s natural population cycle.
Sage Grouse Management by WGFD
Based on management recommendations, WGFD says they will suspend hunting in areas with fewer than 300 breeding individuals. Notably, these recommendations don’t specify the scale that should be considered. Two of Wyoming’s four hunt areas are closed based on these criteria. Hunt areas are large, multi-county blocks. Their huge size masks complex population dynamics. Within the two open hunt areas, there are numerous defined sage grouse habitat core areas. Some are much smaller than others, with more existing infrastructure impacts, habitat degradation, and isolation from other grouse populations.
These populations may be more susceptible to hunting impacts, especially population segments near towns. Leslie Schreiber notes, “Decoupling the local impacts versus the (population) cycle is a major hot topic of sage-grouse research and policy. WGFD is working through this currently as it relates to adaptive management.” WGFD says they will enact stricter regulations if the population declines for three years, regardless of the cause. Regulations last changed in 2007. WGFD also says that they will tighten restrictions if hunters are harvesting over 10 percent of the fall population. But with only estimations of both harvest numbers and fall populations, the proximity to that threshold is uncertain.
Changes to Sage Grouse Hunting Rules
WGFD has implemented stricter sage grouse hunting regulations multiple times since 1995. Still, Wyoming’s rules are more relaxed than every other state except Montana. Wyoming’s over-the-counter upland license allows for sage grouse hunting along with a number of other bird species. In 2021, Idaho approved a separate over-the-counter sage grouse tag, and states like Utah and Oregon already use a lottery draw system.
These measures give other states the opportunity to glean more accurate harvest data. They also limit sage grouse harvest to hunters who are intentional in pursuing that species. Over the past five years, survey data indicates hunters harvested more sage grouse in Wyoming than any other upland species except pheasants, despite having the shortest season.
Grouse Are At Risk
Biologists agree that habitat loss is the most important risk facing sage grouse. But when wildfire, invasive species, energy development, and brush thinning destroy thousands of acres of habitat every year, wildlife managers want to be sure that hunting doesn’t put the species over the edge. They enact regulations to safeguard future hunting opportunities by preventing overharvest.
Some folks worry that any additional hunting regulations will stunt public interest in conserving these birds. Hunting opportunities are often listed as important drivers in conservation engagement, but the contribution of hunters is poorly understood. Brian Rutledge says, “That fiscal investment should be thoroughly analyzed. Some hunters do invest in conservation. Most importantly, responsible hunters recognize when their activities have a conservation benefit and when they do not.”
Sage grouse hunting impacts are likely to be an ongoing discussion. At SGIT’s summer meeting, Dr. Jeffrey Beck of the University of Wyoming and Dr. Jonathan Dinkins of Oregon State University presented their research on population trends compared to past changes in hunting regulations. Their analyses did not reveal indications of negative hunting impacts, but they noted data limitations due to a lack of control samples. They also noted that sage grouse specific licenses and harvest surveys improve data reliability.
Hopefully, researchers and regulatory agencies continue to closely evaluate the impacts of sage grouse hunting. Our future hunting opportunities and the viability of the species depend on it.
Josh Tatman is a conservation writer, upland hunter, and angler from northern Wyoming. Follow him on Instagram @slim_tatman.