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Game & Fish

Sage Grouse

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04/01/2007 - If you've ever shopped for a house or looked for an apartment there are certain things you look for and there are places you'd like to live and others you would never consider.

Sage grouse are the same way. In fact, they require specific habitat requirements for certain times of the year and if these requirements are not met the grouse aren't happy and the population suffers.

Winter range is the smallest range used by sage grouse and is one of the most limiting. Because sage grouse feed exclusively on sagebrush in the winter months, they require areas where the shrub sticks above the snow covering the ground. These areas are often slopes that are cleared of snow by Wyoming's relentless wind. Still, in years with above average snowfall, it has been estimated that only 25 percent of sagebrush is accessible as a food source. That's why it's important to identify and protect critical winter ranges for sage grouse.

Winter range isn't the only habitat that can limit sage grouse production. The Bates Hole/Shirley Basin Sage Grouse Working Group, one of Wyoming's eight local sage grouse working groups located in the Casper Region, identified early brood rearing habitat to also be a critical limiting factor. Early brood rearing habitat provides much needed vegetation growth and insect populations necessary to sustain the high-protein diet of growing chicks. Without adequate vegetation and insects chicks will not thrive.

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Other factors also limit sage grouse production. Urban sprawl, livestock grazing, energy development, and many other human uses of the landscape often erode critical sage grouse habitat. Predators, too, take their toll.

With concerns across the West about declining sage grouse populations, some people question why the Game and Fish Department still allows the species to be hunted.

"It's because hunters help us learn more about sage grouse," said Robin Kepple, information specialist for the Game and Fish Department. "Data received from harvested birds is beneficial to overall sage grouse management."

It's important for hunters to deposit a wing from each sage grouse bagged in the wing barrels placed across Wyoming's basin areas during the sage grouse hunting season. The size and markings of the wing determines if the bird is male or female, and if it is an adult or juvenile. A proportion of the number of chicks to the number of hens can then be determined. This number tells biologists if the year's chick production was good or not. With good production, hunters can expect to see greater numbers of birds, and a greater numbers of birds on the strutting grounds in the coming spring

Kepple said hunting most game birds is considered compensatory mortality; meaning many of the harvested birds would have died anyway. So hunting generally removes that proportion of birds that would die anyway.

The long-lived and relatively low reproductive nature of sage grouse suggests that typical game bird management may not be sufficient to conserve the species. Research has suggested that sage grouse may be more susceptible to hunting mortality than more productive game birds such as pheasants, and in recent years the sage grouse hunt has been made considerably more conservative. Almost all sage grouse research on the issue indicates harvest rates less than five percent have no effect on overall annual mortality.

Hunting also gets sportsmen interested in conserving and monitoring the species. Wyoming's season currently runs for 10 days and the bag limit of 2 birds is fairly conservative. The season has also been moved back three weeks, allowing chicks to grow bigger and fly better so there is less impact on broods.

Biologists continue to study sage grouse to learn more about their habitat needs, and several working groups across the state are in the process of developing management plans for the birds.

"Sage grouse appear to be a keystone species of the sagebrush steppe," Kepple said. "If we can meet their management needs, we can meet needs of many other species as well. What we do for sage grouse will usually benefit other species."

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