Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission decided Thursday to explore other options in addition to closing the sage grouse hunting season this fall.
The proposal to close the season was roundly denounced by hunters at the commission’s meeting in Glasgow. Instead, they called for the department to consider other options such as reducing the season length, bag limit or regional closures to protect particularly imperiled populations.
“I was a little stunned by the nuclear option we pulled out here,” said Glenn Hockett of the Gallatin Wildlife Association. “Degraded or fragmented habitat is the bigger concern.”
As revised, the public will now get to weigh in on what they think the best way to address perceived sage grouse population declines in Montana as they relate to hunting. The only group speaking in support of the proposal was the Montana Stockgrowers Association. MSA spokesman Jay Bodner told the commission that everyone has “given a little bit” on the issue except hunters.
Quentin Kujala, FWP’s wildlife administrator, told the commission that other alternatives to a closure of the season were considered by the department’s staff but were ruled out. Shortening the season or closures of specific areas may only concentrate on hunters, he said. And the staff was concerned by the “magnitude and consistency” of the decline.
It has long been argued by FWP that hunter harvest has a negligible effect on sage grouse populations, a fact pointed out to Kujala. Yet the state sage grouse management plan still addresses a reduction of hunter harvest as a response to reduced grouse numbers, he noted.
“My concern is we are going to potentially close the sage grouse season, but there’s no real indication this will turn the tide,” said Dan Vermillion, commission chair.
He suggested maybe the birds are better off if they are hunted since that focuses hunter interest on conserving and restoring the populations.
“I do think there are a lot more options,” Vermillion said. “This is the most drastic response.”
FWP only made its proposal to close the season Monday, moving to put it immediately before the commission.
According to a press release from FWP, the decision was made after “state biologists counted an average of 14.9 males per sage grouse strutting ground, or lek, last year and noted that preliminary indications show little or no improvement this year. Last year’s count was the lowest recorded since 1980. Montana’s long term lek-count trend is about 30 males per lek on about 90 pre-selected sage grouse strutting grounds.
“Last year’s counts dropped to 48 percent below the long-term average,” Hagener said in the statement. “Our preliminary 2014 numbers show no improvement across all three of Montana’s sage grouse management zones.”
Montana’s sage grouse lek surveys compared to the long-term average since 2008 were: 2013: 14.9 males per lek; or 48 percent below long term average; 2012: 19.1 males per lek; or 34 percent below LTA; 2011: 19.2 males per lek; or 34 percent below LTA; 2010: 20.5 males per lek; or a 31 percent below LTA; 2009: 23.3 males per lek; or a 23 percent below LTA; and 2008: 22.9 males per lek; or 24 percent below LTA.
Final Montana counts for 2014 will be complete by the end of May and will be available for commission review at its July meeting.
The sage grouse has not been listed as an endangered species, although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has ruled that such a designation is warranted.