Oregon Trail pioneers in the 1850s reported flushing sage grouse in numbers that darkened the sky. I doubt that. But I know from experience a flock of a dozen “bombers” leaping from under your feet feels as if it covers the sky. Six-pound birds with 3-foot wingspans take up a bit of space. But they won’t be doing so much longer.
The sage grouse may be on its way out.
And if the second-largest grouse in the world had fists it would be shaking them at us. Humans are pushing this iconic upland game bird of the West toward the final frontier … extinction.
Four years, ago sage grouse lured this hunter into the foothills of Idaho’s Pioneer Mountains where a virulent strain of blooming rubber rabbitbrush so aggressively assaulted my sinuses I had to retire from the field, weeping and leaking. I barely made it home alive.
Ten years ago, an entire congregation of grouse slinked through the sage and nearly drove my setter to distraction. One after another they led her willy-nilly over pad-abrading rocks and cacti-studded gravel. Then, as she pointed, they flushed, one-by-one. She quivered and rolled her eyes, waiting and wondering why I didn’t shoot, why she couldn’t rush out and fetch one of the aromatic, enticing birds. Poor dog—I’d already shot my two-bird limit.
Thirty-five years ago, three young hunters in the full bloom of manhood strode across the sagebrush flats of eastern Montana, lured from the safety of thermostatically controlled offices and shops to the wild uncertainties of Big Sky Country, lured by a mysterious bird, North America’s largest, showiest grouse, the greater sage grouse. They found them, chased them, flushed them, shot them, ate them and fell in love with the wild, wild West.
Two hundred years ago, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark discovered and shot a new species of gallinaceous bird and sent specimens back East. Scientists named it Centrocercus urophasianus, the spine-tailed pheasant—our sage grouse.
Three hundred years ago, as Native American hunters watched, sage grouse gathered each spring on tens of thousands of leks to pose, strut, fight and win mates. Their hens dispersed across millions of acres of sagebrush steppe from southern Alberta to northern Arizona, central South Dakota to California to lay eggs and raise chicks. They’d done this for millennia before and would do for millennia after, or so it seemed.
Today our sage grouse, this spectacular part of our hunters’ heritage, has been wiped out in five states and one Canadian province. Populations in remaining states are fragmented. Bag limits have been reduced, seasons shortened and even closed. Roughly 50 percent of historic sage grouse range has been lost. Most of what remains has been severely degraded. In less than a single human lifespan, a common game bird that swarmed in the millions has been reduced to perhaps 350,000.
Sadly, this isn’t the first time we’ve neglected a game bird to death. Remember the heath hen? It was a prairie chicken in the Northeast, a treasured game bird; it’s gone. How about Attwater’s prairie chicken? This close cousin to the heath hen is barely hanging on in Texas Gulf Coast prairies, most of which have been lost to grain fields, cotton fields and invading brush. No one has legally hunted an Attwater’s prairie chicken in decades. Similar things are happening with lesser prairie chickens in southwest Kansas, northwest Oklahoma and northeast New Mexico. Our great, native game birds: Going, going, gone?
How can this be? The sage grouse is a big, strong, hearty bird that evolved here, withstanding droughts, blizzards, sandstorms, unbridled populations of native predators, unregulated egg gathering and hunting by generations of hunter/gatherers. It lives in family groups into October. Males compete for females by strutting on communal mating grounds (leks), spread tail fans, inflate chest/neck pouches, brush wings against their sides and spit out a weird popping sound. They squabble and fight over small dance areas; the oldest male with dancing ground in the center of a lek gets most of the mating rights.
This is the “thunderbird” of Native American lore. It struts like a turkey and launches from beneath a pointing dog’s nose like a B-52 Stratofortress, seemingly unable to get airborne. But when you raise your 12-gauge to strafe it from the skies, you discover the illusion. Like a giant Canada goose, these bombers are moving deceptively fast. Their bulk and slow wing beats have fooled you. Odds are you’ll shoot behind. Odds are you’ll want another try. Odds are you’ll walk a dozen miles over country so big, so wild and so free you’ll think it’s 1850. And you’ll want to sample this taste of freedom again and again because this is your bird living on your land, the vast grasslands and sagebrush steppe of the American West. You own it. I own it. Millions and millions of acres. And we’re letting others run roughshod over it.
This is one of the most discouraging hypocrisies of hunting. We justifiably and rightly pat ourselves on the backs for being the first and best conservationists, the ones who ended market hunting, started the conservation movement, invented the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation that uses the money from hunting license sales to study game and habitat, establish seasons and bag limits, restore habitat and reintroduce depleted species. We are the lovers of wildlife who started DU and Rocky Mountain Elk and Wild Sheep and asked Congress to tax our guns and ammunition so we could perpetuate wildlife and wild places.
So why are we letting our sage grouse slip away?
A few years ago a bunch of “environmentalist” groups rose to defend sage grouse, but did so in a manner few hunters appreciate. They proposed it be listed as a Threatened and Endangered Species. Crazy? Perhaps. But crazier is we hunters letting these birds reach the point where such a proposal was even possible. We own, under the auspices of the Bureau of Land Management, roughly 180 million acres of sagebrush-grassland. This land has been used for 200 years to feed cattle and sheep, mine minerals, flood rivers, drain wetlands, drill for oil and gas, erect electric lines, build giant windmills, coddle tens of thousands of overgrazing feral horses, host motorized vehicle races—for just about everything except protect, enhance and perpetuate our native sage grouse.
Now I don’t have a problem with responsible multiple-use of our federal lands. I don’t mind ranchers and farmers getting their share. But why must we hunters take it in the shorts? Why must our game birds get pushed to the back of the line until a group of environmental organizations steps in to rescue it?
Why haven’t we, the greatest conservationists in the world, done our jobs?
Perhaps it’s not too late for a conversion. Perhaps if we quit paying lip service and got involved, we could restore sage grouse on our land, the place where we can camp and hunt without paying huge trespass fees, without signing lease contracts, without hiring guides. Isn’t it time we stopped paying for far-raised and released “game girds” and insisted the range managers we hire manage our range in a condition that can again grow our birds?
In case you’ve never had the pleasure of hunting sage grouse, here’s what you’re missing:
You let out the dogs to run and water, load your pack with two canteens, grab your shotgun and a handful of shells and start walking across an endless slope of grass, into low sage, over a ridge.
The sun is warming and so is the day. You head for a windmill to water the dogs. Halfway there they slam on point. You step up—whoa, whoa—and a half-dozen birds the size of overgrown pheasants crossed with geese thunder up: gray, white, black, pointy tails. You swing, shoot. The dog is already on the first bird, prancing back.
By noon you are back in camp with a limit. You pluck them and rinse them in a small brook bubbling down from the distant mountains. You’ve heard they’re inedible, tough like a boot, flavor like sage, but you will try them anyway, stripping their breasts into narrow strips, basting them in butter, pulling them out hot and rare. You heard wrong. They are tender and delectable. No taste of sage except the background perfume on the pure desert air. No one else is around. Just you and your friends. Maybe this afternoon you’ll go upstream with a fly rod. Tomorrow you’ll walk a few more of your million acres and see a few more of your sage grouse.