Making their case for sage grouse hunting

Hunters, state wildlife officials say hunts bring in valuable data

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling

Published Aug 11, 2014 at 12:01AM

To see a bird being considered for Endangered Species Act protection also listed in the state hunting regulations may be confusing.

But hunters and state wildlife officials say hunting the greater sage grouse yields valuable information about the bird. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife asks hunters to send in sage grouse wing samples, which researchers use to determine age trends, gender ratios and nesting success rates.

“I don’t know how else they would be able to get that if there was no hunting,” said Duane Dungannon, state coordinator for the Oregon Hunters Association. The statewide group, based in Medford, has 25 chapters and more than 10,400 members.

But some state lawmakers question why a potentially protected animal would also be hunted.

“I don’t understand why we hunt them,” Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, said in a Capital Press article this June. Esquivel serves as vice-chair of the state House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

Now the Oregon Hunters Association plans to form a committee of its own to better answer questions about sage grouse hunting. The Bend chapter of the group plans to discuss the new committee at its Wednesday meeting.

“We just started looking at this to see what we can do,” said Bill Littlefield, president of the Oregon Hunters Association’s Bend chapter.

The committee’s goal is to “get the facts on sage grouse hunting, sage grouse predations and sage grouse population trends, and weigh the value of the information collected from the wings taken by hunters…,” according to the Bend chapter’s July newsletter.

Under a court order, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has until September 2015 to decide if the sage grouse — a chicken-sized bird known for the unique strutting done by males during courtship of hens — should be protected under the ESA or not. Found in 11 Western states including Oregon, the bird could be in danger due to loss of sagebrush and encroachment by human developments such as wind farms.

Concern about the state of sage grouse is rooted in loss of habitat and dwindling populations, said Dave Budeau, ODFW upland game bird coordinator. He said the state limits hunters to killing about 2.5 percent of the fall population of the bird.

“We could do that into perpetuity and not affect the birds,” he said.

Last year hunters killed 360 sage grouse out of an estimated fall population of 16,446 birds, or 2.2 percent of the population, in parts of the state where sage grouse hunting is allowed, said ODFW spokeswoman Michelle Dennehy.

The state allows sage grouse hunting in parts of Eastern and Southeast Oregon, but not in Deschutes, Crook or Jefferson Counties.

“We do have a season,” she said, “but it is very conservative.”

Sage grouse hunting season lasts a week in Oregon, with the season this year set for Sept. 6 to 14, according to ODFW hunting regulations. The state limits hunters to two birds per season, and they must have a sage grouse permit to hunt them. The state issued 870 of the permits in 2013 and plans to issue 845 this year. The application deadline is Aug. 25.

The sage grouse wing sample program is voluntary; about two-thirds of hunters send in wings, Budeau said. Hunters can also assist state researchers by submitting other samples, such as blood to check for disease or viruses.

“It would be expensive and difficult to (collect such samples) without hunting,” Dennehy said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com