Upland Pursuits – Pursuit and Conservation of Greater Sage Grouse

Published in the East Oregonian, November 21st, 2020

An icon of the western U.S., the wary, spike-tailed adult males of this species boast the endearing nickname “bombers” due to their large size and lumbering liftoff. An obligate Inhabitant of the high sagebrush, greater sage grouse are as quintessential to the range as pronghorn and mule deer.

A spectacle to behold, my first encounter was in southern Idaho on a late September elk hunt. Riding an abysmally rough BLM road back to camp, I spotted “geese” in the sagebrush off to my right. “Why are geese out here in the sagebrush?” I asked myself. It seemed plausible to find geese along the Pahsimeroi River, but not in the shrub-steppe.

“Those aren’t geese, genius. They’re sage grouse!” I blurted out in elation. A half-dozen robust, feather-legged fowl eyeballed me warily as I bounced past, ensuring they need not unnecessarily expend the energy of lift-off.

A male sage grouse displaying for the ladies. Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Sage grouse once numbered around 16 million across western North America, pre-settlement. Presently, estimates of approximately 200,000 birds remain range wide, their significant decline attributed largely to habitat loss. Following their decline, the species was proposed for listing as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act until a 2015 status review identified that listing was not warranted.

The decision was made partially due to the efforts of the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI), which began in 2010, pushing to conserve precious sagebrush habitat across the sage grouse range. Sage grouse and the SGI are both captivating in their own right; the birds for their size and behaviors, and the SGI for its incredible cooperative nature among landowners, non-profits and government agencies.

Presently, there are four protected, fragmented populations in Washington. A much larger area of southern Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, and southeast Oregon throughout the Steens, Malheur and Owyhee public lands support these curious prairie grouse, permitting regulated hunting seasons.

Sage grouse are known for their dramatic “lekking” behavior. A lek is a common area where males gather in spring to perform courtship displays for females and fiercely defend their territory on the lek, which may only be a few yards in size.

The sage grouse courtship dance is something to behold. Males have spiked tail fans and snow-white breast feathers with two yellow air sacs that they inflate during the ritual. The Cornell University bird laboratory explains the courtship behavior as follows.

“Standing tall, with inflated chest held high, the male sweeps his wings across his white breast, creating a swishing noise. He tilts his head back, rapidly inflating, bouncing, and deflating the yellow, balloon-like pouches on his chest. The outward popping of these bare pouches creates a series of echoing pops. These displays are performed almost continuously, and up to 10 times per minute, for several hours in the early morning.”

Cornell University Bird Laboratory

Ensuring the persistence of this iconic species of the western sagebrush habitats, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) helped found the SGI, leveraging Farm Bill funds and volunteer landowner cooperation to conserve the largest intact tracts of sagebrush with the largest sage grouse populations. To date, the SGI has cooperated with 1,856 ranchers to conserve more than 7 million acres across 11 western states (California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming).

The SGI includes NRCS partnerships with myriad local, state and federal governments and non-governmental organizations like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Oregon Hunters Association, Pheasants Forever and the Ruffed Grouse Society. While the NRCS channels funding through the Farm Bill, success is only possible through partners that leverage funds, shoulder work, and tackle policies beyond the authority of the NRCS.

Sage grouse amid their spring mating rituals on the lek. Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The success of the SGI equates to uplanders like me continuing to have opportunities to hunt sage grouse where their remaining populations are strong. But wildfire and invasive species like cheat grass continue to threaten sage grouse habitat. As fire danger and smokey air from the Cascades region settled over eastern Washington and Oregon this past September, I cancelled my bucket list hunt for which I had drawn an Oregon permit.  

Smoke settled thick, oozing through the window cracks on the homestead like pancake batter late on September 11th. Burning tear ducts awakened me, urging me to tape off windows and doors. Burns, Oregon was slated for the same air quality. I can only imagine how uncomfortably stuffy a camper, sealed tight, encapsulating myself and two setters might have been.

Historic sagebrush-steppe fires burned slow and cool, beneficial to the ecosystem. But cheatgrass encroachments have changed fire cycles to more frequent and hotter, roasting mature plants and damaging sagebrush regeneration. Additionally, sagebrush communities are slow-growing, requiring invasive species management and possibly replanting to reestablish decimated communities.             

Fortunately, wildlife is resilient and persistent. Habitat and hunting opportunity to be restored through the efforts of dedicated partnerships like the SGI. And the 2021 prospects are looking good.

I can see the covey nestled among the buttery autumn grasses and milky sage. A setter tail wafts gently in the auburn glow of the sun peeking over the Owyhee; the location of the covey betrayed. Circling in for the flush, the covey materializes from the sagebrush sea. Heavy wingbeats trigger a swift mount. The bead aligns with my right eye as double barrels swing through. Next year…  

Outsmarting River Bottom Roosters

December 15, 2020 – Outsmarting River Bottom Roosters | Harvesting Nature

Picture an expansive river bar with a variety of cover and vegetation types, and terrain ranging from flat bottomland to steep and brushy slopes topped by shallow soils over basalt formations. Riparian cottonwood and willow present with sparse, brilliant canary yellow and amber foliage, shedding gently into a light breeze. Golden waves of wheatgrass and other bunches flank wealthy corn, canola and sorghum food plots separating the riparian from the uplands. And a rooster cackles as you unclip your pointing dog for a morning match of wits.

This well-loved public parcel sees a wealth of upland hunters and canine breeds over the course of the bird season, my setters and I included. The pheasant are wily, highly educated, stretched tighter than a banjo hide, and easily qualify for the Olympic 400-meter sprint. Pinched birds are prone to startle the hunter into cardiac arrest as they rarely sit for a staunch point and flush from behind at every opportunity.

Finn hunts the high ground on our favorite river-bottom public land.

Humans succumb to routine, of which hunting method fall victim. The parking area and access points are low on the property and lead to the tempting food plots and thicker riparian cover. Walking the road or hunting the lowlands right out of the gate is a natural tendency, yet ensures an early day, and not due to a limit of birds.

Pheasant naturally emerge from thick roosting covers before sunrise and head to the high ground and crop fields for breakfast. Pushing through the roosting cover often produces a productive point or two, but if you step aside to observe bird behavior beyond the range of your pointing dog, you may notice birds escaping far ahead, possibly beyond the public boundaries. And once these birds decide to go, they generally waste no time.

A simple solution is to hunt the high ground immediately. Birds heading out from roost are more likely to hunker down or flush back toward roost cover. Making a high pass and circling low for the return lap ensures a few more birds are occupying good transition covers and may be less sure of themselves as you approach from a different direction than most others.

Kea locks in beneath a hillside hawthorn.

Hunting large tracts with birds possibly scattered throughout is best accomplished with partners and multiple dogs. Beware of the company you keep, however. Pheasant are highly attuned to sight and sound. I have witnessed birds escape an onslaught more than a quarter-mile ahead as whistles, beeper collars and voices echoed, alerting all life to the presence of the orange-clad cavalry.

Instead, keep quiet, collars silent, and leave the whistle in the truck, if possible. Use hand signals to communicate with your buddies and canines, and spread across the terrain with a couple of good working dogs to catch the birds as they try to duck between and around the mammalian search party.

Another consideration is the severity of disturbance the birds experience. A similar but much smaller creek bottom property I visit has relinquished several roosters to my girls and I over the years, some coming directly on the heels of other hunters. When pheasant are gently pushed out, even speeding ahead of an errant shot wad, they may only travel a short distance into more challenging terrain if not further pursued.

Recently, at the conclusion of significant rainfall, I made the creek bottom for the final hour of daylight, only to pass parting hunters on the road. Not 10 minutes prior did they deposit spent shells and boot tracks in the bottomland mud. 

Upon spying the aftermath, my youngest setter, Zeta, and I turned up the adjacent draws, traversing the hillside bunchgrass, flanking the edge of a wheat field a mere couple hundred yards off the creek. Because the property is so small, other hunters rarely venture up the grassy draws. Pheasant that flush to the extent of the cover and experience no further pressure over time are largely content to sit tight, waiting for the typical brush-busters to push through and vacate.

Zeta with her rain-soaked late evening rooster from the top of the draw.

This particular evening, Zeta put us on a couple pheasant that sat beautifully for her rare and stylish point. She needs a cure for her addiction to putting birds on the wing and careening madly in their wake. Yet, as we surprised these birds, she did her job well, and the flush presented an easy shot.

Hunting pressured public land pheasant can be challenging, particularly coming into the late season, but alternative approaches playing on pheasant behavior and property boundaries can be surprisingly productive. Keep quiet, always anticipate the flush, and trust your pup’s instinct. It may take some time to pin a bird, but when the point is true, circle in, ready for action, and savor the hard-won success of an educated public land bird.