By Doug Leier

While it won't become official until the annual small game hunting proclamation is finalized later this month, it's a certainty that North Dakota will not have a sage grouse season again this fall. This will mark the third year in a row that the state has not had an open season on sage grouse, after more than 40 years of limited hunting that started in the mid-1960s.

Sage Grouse HuntingSage grouse are the largest of North Dakota's three native grouse species, and are found only in the extreme southwestern part of the state, where big sage once covered the landscape. These birds were never all that numerous because North Dakota marked the northeastern edge of their range, but over the past 50 years since the State Game and Fish Department first conducted spring surveys, the population has declined by more than 80 percent.

Much of that decline is attributed to big sage habitat conversion and fragmentation, while in recent years Game and Fish biologists suspect that the West Nile virus has taken an additional toll on adult birds.

This year the spring count of male sage grouse on leks was at its lowest level since the survey began in the 1950s. Aaron Robinson, Game and Fish Department upland game bird biologist, said a record low 66 males were counted on 15 active strutting grounds. Last year, 69 males were counted on 17 active leks in the southwest. "A big increase in the population was not expected due to last year's wet spring, including the snowfall we received in June 2009," Robinson said.

The number of males counted on leks each spring has gradually declined since 2000 when the tally was 283 birds. In 2008, spring counts dropped dramatically throughout North Dakota's sage grouse range, falling from 159 to 77.

If there is a bit of good news in the lower number for 2010, it's that the total was only three less than 2009. "One thing is clear," Robinson said, "we have not taken another big hit by West Nile which hopefully indicates some resistance."

Management of sage grouse in North Dakota has followed a specific plan which outlines hunting harvest objectives. There is no indication that hunting has had a role in the sage grouse population decline. Without managed hunting the past two years, the numbers still went down, and for several years prior to that the annual harvest was less than two dozen birds.

Even so, the Game and Fish Department plan recommends closing the hunting season if the spring census indicates fewer than 100 males. Wildlife division Chief Randy Kreil explains, "There is hope that hunters will again be able to hunt the arid, gorgeous country for a bird that is so startling on the wing because of its size. "The goal would be to conserve and recover the habitat base so the sage grouse population would expand to the point that our limited hunting seasons could be revived,"

It's important to note the role of hunting in conservation. Money generated through license fees and excise taxes provides biologists with the resources to monitor sage grouse and sagebrush habitat. Game and Fish and other agencies are working with cooperating landowners on a few new programs designed to conserve or reestablish sagebrush.

Changes likely won't occur overnight, and there is no expectation that the state's sage grouse population will eventually rebound to match historic highs. The primary objective is gradual improvement that will keep sage grouse from landing on the endangered species list, and ultimately return them to the list of birds that form the basis for the state's fall upland game hunting seasons.

Leier is a biologist with the Game and Fish Department. He can be reached by email: [email protected]