Spring Sage Grouse at Record Low, NDGF Recommends Closing Season

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North Dakota Game and Fish Department biologists recently completed the 2008 spring sage grouse survey, and census data revealed the number of strutting males observed was an all-time low and well below management objectives. Therefore, the Game and Fish Department will recommend closing the sage grouse hunting season in 2008.

Aaron Robinson, the department’s upland game biologist in Dickinson, said a total of 77 males were counted on 18 active strutting grounds. The record high number of male sage grouse counted on leks in the southwest was 542 birds in 1953, and the prior low mark of 111 was in 1996. In 2007, biologists counted 159 males on 19 active grounds.

The number of males counted on leks each spring has gradually declined since 2000, but this spring’s count dropped dramatically throughout North Dakota’s present sage grouse range. “The specific cause of the decline is unknown, but with wet weather conditions last spring and standing water available during late summer, West Nile virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, is suspected,” Robinson said. “Just 80 miles to the south, sage grouse equipped with radio transmitters in northwestern South Dakota were documented dying from West Nile virus at an alarming rate.”

Sage grouse are closely tied to sagebrush habitat, which is very limited in southwestern North Dakota. While grasslands and residual cover look in relatively good condition this spring in the southwest, the amount of sagebrush habitat has been slowly declining over the years. Sage grouse hunting seasons have been very restrictive the last 20 years and harvest has exceeded 50 birds only once during this time. There is no indication that hunting has caused a decline in the population.

With more normal weather conditions in the southwest this spring reducing the chance of West Nile, and with adult birds more resistant to the disease, Game and Fish Department biologists hope to see a recovery of the population.

Management of sage grouse in North Dakota has followed a specific plan developed by a diverse group of participants. The plan outlines hunting harvest objectives for the species with a recommendation that the hunting season close if the spring census indicates fewer than 100 males in the population. This spring’s count falls below those guidelines. If the 2008 hunting season is closed, it will mark the first time in nearly half a century the season has not been open.

When the spring breeding population increases above 100 males, department biologists will recommend the season reopen. “Our objective is to maintain a viable sage grouse population in the state and to provide recreational hunting when bird numbers allow,” Robinson said.

Even though sage grouse populations throughout the west are undergoing a review in status, the department manages these birds based on the best biological data available and is not influenced by the present lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the species as endangered.

Sage grouse are North Dakota’s largest native upland game bird. They are found in extreme southwestern North Dakota, primarily in Bowman and Slope counties.