I love the game of chasing chukar and watching bird dogs work the sagebrush of arid ranges in my home state of Oregon. Earlier this month, I decided to take my chances on another upland bird: the greater sage grouse. With the controversy surrounding the bird and its possible listing in 2015 under the Endangered Species Act, I decided to apply for a controlled hunt permit with the hope that this wouldn’t be my last opportunity to pursue the bird.
The sage grouse is a Western icon, known for its unique, breast-inflating courtship dance. It inhabits sagebrush rangelands throughout the West. State and federal agencies, ranchers, environmentalists and sportsmen are working diligently and cooperatively to prevent the bird’s ESA listing, which would eliminate any future opportunity for sportsmen to hunt sage grouse – and would have significant implications for other resource uses across 11 states.
The sagebrush ecosystem where these magnificent birds thrive is also home to more than 350 species of plants and animals, including many pursued by sportsmen. Mule deer, pronghorn, elk and other species all need healthy, intact sagebrush habitat for their survival. If we imaging a huge tent or umbrella with all these species protected beneath it, conserving sage grouse habitat translates into good wildlife and rangeland conservation. Sagebrush conservation is good for our nation’s economy, too, especially in rural communities.
Oregon is one of the few states a person can hunt sage grouse with a controlled hunting permit, with a two-bird limit per permit. In 2013, 659 people hunted sage grouse throughout Central and Southeast Oregon. Each of these sportsmen spent money on gas, food, lodging and gear for each hunt, and those dollars get distributed across rural areas all across the state.
After the postcard arrived in the mail validating that I drew a permit, the pre-planning began. My shotgun had not been fired for months and needed to be fitted, so I delivered it to a local gunsmith. Next, I had to decide where to go. The area I drew was in the Lakeview Bureau of Land Management district. Within that unit there is more than 1 million acres of public land available for hunting. I called the district biologist and a couple ranchers for their recommendations on places to go. I studied the BLM district maps for access roads and coordinated meeting a friend who also drew a tag. The trip was coming together.
With my gear packed and the dog ready to go, I began the five-hour journey to my destination. Some might wonder why I would hunt a bird that only has a bag limit of two and only a weeklong season. I see this as an opportunity to hunt a new place, experience wide-open spaces and watch bird dogs do what they do best – find birds!
The next morning we woke up early to get the dogs ready and drink that first cup of joe. Driving down the bumpy road anticipating the first bird, the dogs could sense our excitement. We parked near a spring, got the collars on the dogs and dusted off the guns. The sagebrush aroma filled my lungs, and Cedar, my pudalpointer, started working like a veteran. Though he never had hunted sage grouse before, he worked with authority searching for birds. This wasn’t his first rodeo.
We walked miles covering a flat, and after a few hours, we saw movement in the distance. It was a covey of sage grouse. The cover was low, and we were exposed, just like the birds, so we decided to walk a wide circle around them and approach them up wind. Keeping our eyes on the birds, we slowly moved in. They quickly spotted us and started walking. Soon they were out of shooting range, eventually flying off, splitting in two directions and landing a couple hundred yards away.
We decided to break apart and ambush the birds. Cedar and I worked the near side while Mellissa and her dogs worked in the distance. We eventually spotted the birds and moved in. They held, and Cedar crept in. The sage grouse looked at us. I moved in closer and closer. Finally they took wing. I took a shot, and a bird fell. Cedar circled around for the retrieve and pranced back with the smile of success.
Sportsmen can’t afford another loss of opportunity if the sage grouse is listed under the Endangered Species Act. Nor can sportsmen remain silent – our voices must be heard, and we must advocate for solid state and federal conservation plans for sage grouse that also will protect other species we enjoy pursuing. With hunter participation declining across the West, we must act and get involved to ensure sage grouse habitat is conserved and a listing is avoided. Sportsmen must define our own destiny and help conserve wildlife to retain all our opportunities – as well as those for future generations.