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CHEYENNE – Concerns about the potential impact of West Nile virus on the sage grouse population in northeast Wyoming have prompted the Game and Fish Commission to close the 2003 hunting season for the species in Johnson, Sheridan and Campbell counties.

Since August, the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory has diagnosed 11 sage grouse in the Spotted Horse and Gillette areas infected with the virus. Because the infection is much higher in northeast Wyoming than the rest of the state and the area is on the fringe of sage grouse range with marginal, fragmented habitat, the G&F Department recommended closing the season.

“Northeast Wyoming has comparatively small sage grouse populations that are semi-isolated,” said Tom Christiansen, G&F sage grouse biologist. “When combined with all the other limiting factors these populations face, we thought it was best to close the area to hunting as a precaution.”

All other areas originally open for hunting will remain open for the Sept. 27 – Oct. 5 season. The limit will continue to be two daily and four in possession.

Christiansen added, “The discovery of the virus in sage grouse is not surprising, but early indications suggest a higher mortality rate than has been observed in other game birds.”

The infected birds in the Powder River Basin were part of a study being conducted by the University of Montana and the Bureau of Land Management researching the impacts of coalbed methane development on sage grouse.

Spring monitoring will determine if overall mortality was as high as indicated by the birds in the study. If the counts do not show a significant loss, the hunting season will likely be reopened in 2004 for these counties.

Since the virus was discovered in northeast Wyoming sage grouse, expanded surveillance has also diagnosed one positive case each in Carbon, Fremont, Park, Natrona and Sweetwater counties. Monitoring of over 100 radio-collared birds in studies near Lander, Pinedale and Kemmerer has not detected any unusual mortality associated with West Nile virus.

Todd Cornish, veterinary pathologist for the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory, re-emphasizes the long-standing advice to cook game meat, including birds, thoroughly and to wear rubber gloves while cleaning all game. He also recommends hunters discard all viscera.

“Although West Nile virus has heightened the publics’ awareness of avian diseases, these have been standard recommendations to bird hunters for many years,” Cornish said.

Hunters are also advised to wear long sleeves and insect repellent until a hard freeze kills mosquitoes.

The G&F estimates that about 150 hunters bagged approximately 75 grouse in Johnson, Campbell and Sheridan counties in 2002.

In the last 10 years, the G&F has also closed the Jackson area and the extreme southeast corner of Wyoming to sage grouse hunting because these populations are isolated and small.




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