Sage grouse hunts will continue in Hunt Area 4Written by Christy Martinez
Taking even more time to discuss than the topics pertaining to wolf management and hunting, the Commission heard presentations, public comment and discussion on Chapter 11 Sage Grouse Hunting Seasons, and whether or not to close the sage grouse hunt area in northeast Wyoming, which is referred to as Hunt Area 4.
Leks, males decrease
“There are two major themes that arose in reference to sage grouse in the last year. The one that’s resulted in the greatest amount of public input is the fairly substantial decrease in the number of active sage grouse leks in northeast Wyoming, and the decrease in the average number of males observed per lek, both in the northeast part of the state and statewide,” WGFD Wildlife Division Assistant Chief Tom Ryder told the Commission.
He said in northeast Wyoming in 2007 there were 43 males per lek, and in 2011 that was down to slightly over 20 per lek.
“The total number of males counted in northeast Wyoming since 2007 has dropped from about 5,500 birds down to just over 1,600 birds – that’s a decline in male attendance of 70 percent,” he added.
Ryder also noted the decline in the number of active leks in northeast Wyoming since 2007.
“The numbers tell a dramatic story – from 249 active in 2007 down to 169 leks documented last spring,” he said. “This year our field personnel are out on the ground doing lek surveys for 2012.”
After explaining the background of the sage grouse population situation in northeast Wyoming, Ryder explained to the Commission that the WGFD proposed to close Hunt Area 4, in northeast Wyoming, to sage grouse hunting in 2012. Hunt Area 1, which encompasses the rest of the state, would remain open, with only a minor change to opening day so that it coincides with the nearest weekend.
“The biological statistics suggest strongly that the bird population in the northeast part of the state in general is in fairly steep decline, and at the point now where numbers are dangerously low, in my view,” said Ryder, noting that the part of the hunt area west of the Powder River is fairing better, but that the WGFD did not want to split up the hunt area. “We feel it’s important to hunt the entire population, or none of it.”
“Recent population analyses done for northeast Wyoming suggest strongly that with the population as it stands, one major event could have a dramatic impact on the birds in the northeast part of the state,” he said. “Dramatic declines, if not localized extinction, could occur with an event like a big disease outbreak.”
As another reason to close the hunt area, Ryder mentioned the upcoming decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service regarding the sage grouse’s listing status in 2015.
“The biological statistics we have suggest the population is in tough shape right now, and the Department has one tool to try to effect some reduction in mortality, and that is through promulgation of regulations,” he said. “This is the one chance we have to attempt to limit mortality in this bird population by recommending closure.”
However, Ryder did mention a few alternatives to complete closure of the hunt area.
“One is, since the level of harvest in Area 4 has been so low, you could choose to leave the 2012 season as it has been, and expect low harvest and limited biological impact,” he said. “The second is, in addition to the preferred option, you could leave Area 4 open, but reduce the bag limit from two birds to one bird per day and the season length from three days to two days. That would reduce harvest by a third, and more than likely more than that.”
He also mentioned again the option of closing just the eastern portion of Hunt Area 4, leaving the west section open.
Despite the population declines, many of the members of the public, including Bob Wharf of Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, advocated for leaving the hunt area open.
“It does appear that hunting is not contributing to any declines, and having that hunting season keeps people engaged, and it keeps conservation efforts alive,” commented Wharf, adding that he’s worried about shutting down hunting seasons without the science to support it, and that the closure would set a precedent.
“We can see undue pressure in other states and in our state to force the closure of all hunting seasons. We would prefer to see the Commission leave the season the way it was last year, but direct the Department to come up with a plan,” he said, listing eagles, ravens and crows as a part of the problem. “They are regulated outside your purview with protections under the federal system, but it’s not fair to allow their protection and allow sage grouse to be listed. By protecting some species, their densities have become higher, and we can’t allow protection for some at the expense of others.”
Instead of giving up hunting, Wharf said he would rather the WGFD lead the effort to identify the problems and craft a solution.
On the flip side, Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna said that it’s been a sense of frustration for landowners that the WGFD has continued to allow hunting of sage grouse.
Speaking of the “warranted but precluded” finding by the Fish and Wildlife Service for listing of the sage grouse, Magagna said, “We’re beyond the point of perception, and we need to deal with reality in what we can all do to prevent listing the species. Those of us who are landowners and who graze on public lands are asked to make significant sacrifices, as well as the mineral industry and recreational users.”
“If a case can be made that not hunting sage grouse, even across the state, would provide some benefit and some equity in the way we all approach this challenge, you as a Commission should be willing to consider that,” stated Magagna. “We hear regularly that hunting is not responsible for the decline, but what we’re talking about today is not just stopping the decline, but rebuilding the sage grouse population.”
In the end, the Commission voted to leave the Chapter 11 Sage Grouse Hunting Season for Hunt Area 4 as it was in 2011, and opening day was moved to Sept. 15 from Sept. 17.