CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Hunting of greater sage grouse could continue in eight states even if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were to determine in the months ahead that the ground-dwelling birds deserve protection as a threatened or endangered species, an agency spokesman said.
The reason: The birds are set to remain under state control because Congress voted in December to withhold any funding to list the birds as threatened or endangered.
“If we determined that it was still warranted for protection, we would be precluded from taking the next step to try and evaluate whether or not a threatened or an endangered listing would be appropriate,” Fish and Wildlife spokesman Theo Stein said Tuesday.
At least one state — Wyoming, home to more of the birds than any other state by far — already is planning to allow sage grouse hunting again this fall. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is taking public comment on a proposed sage grouse hunting season Sept. 19-30 as part of its annual solicitation of public feedback on the hunting of all game species.
“We’re just sticking to our state management at this point and moving forward with planning for a September hunting season,” said Scott Smith, Wyoming Game and Fish Department Wildlife Division deputy chief. “I guess we’re all waiting to see what the federal government comes up with as far as a listing decision.”
The greater sage grouse is a chicken-sized bird that inhabits the sagebrush-covered expanses of the West. Its numbers have declined from perhaps well over a million in pre-settlement time to no more than 500,000 in 11 states from California to the Dakotas.
Eight of those states — California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming — allow hunting of greater sage grouse.
In 2010, Fish and Wildlife determined that federal protection of the greater sage grouse was “warranted but precluded” by the more urgent need to protect more imperiled species. Now, Fish and Wildlife faces a court-ordered Sept. 30 deadline to decide if the greater sage grouse needs federal protection.
The agency could decide that efforts since 2010 have been sufficient to protect the greater sage grouse and federal protection isn’t needed.
Or, Fish and Wildlife could decide federal protection still is needed. In that case, Stein said, “the situation will be essentially status quo in that it would remain a candidate species.”
The cattle ranching, petroleum and wind energy industries anxiously await what Fish and Wildlife will decide. Federal protection for the greater sage grouse could restrict development on significant expanses of Western land, though the vote by Congress lessens the stakes somewhat for now.
Meanwhile, hunting sage grouse indirectly helps the species as one of the better ways of gathering information about the birds, according to Wyoming Game and Fish officials.
Last year, the state agency was able to determine by studying wings donated by sage grouse hunters that the birds had one of their better years for reproduction. Each hen produced an average of 1.7 chicks, according to the data.
Hunters across Wyoming donated 1,443 wings from 177 male sage grouse, 472 females and 794 chicks. Chicks hatched in the spring have grown into full-sized birds by fall.
As was the rule last year, this fall the Wyoming Game and Fish Department proposes a daily take limit of two sage grouse and total possession limit of four sage grouse.
In all eight states where greater sage grouse hunting is allowed, the hunting seasons are short and each hunter may take only a small number of birds, Stein said.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service recognizes that hunting is a source of mortality for sage grouse. But we do not think it is a significant source of mortality at the species level,” he said.