A story of Sage Grouse hunting and a realization of the critical nature of their future.
For the third time, my dog locked up on point. This time I was hoping to see my first sage grouse. I had about five hundred lead pellets waiting to do my bidding on this hefty bird. As North America’s largest grouse species, a mature male can tip the scales at seven pounds. Imagine my surprise when it suddenly busted out of the sagebrush a few yards from my muzzle like a commercial airliner erupting from a forest. My shotgun pellets flew harmlessly behind the bird and I stood in stupefied amazement as it thundered back into the Wyoming prairie. I have hunted birds in eighteen states and three Canadian provinces, but I had never actually laid my eyes on a living sage grouse.
As my desire to see the beast increased, so did the urgency. There were around sixteen million on their Great Plains range just a hundred years ago. Thanks to habitat destruction, that number is below five hundred thousand today. As a result, sage grouse seasons have been closed in several states in recent years and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may be headed toward declaring the birds a federally endangered species. Many leading biologists and conservationists believe that such a designation will further imperil the birds, alienating landowners who own crucial grouse habitat and threatening sportsman-based funding for habitat improvement. Because of all this politics, I knew that 2014 needed to be the year I bagged a sage grouse.
So in late September, I loaded my truck and started the long drive from Michigan to Wyoming. Two friends, Lloyd and Pat, joined me. We then met up with a Ed, a biologist working the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), and his friend Tom. At daybreak the next morning, the five of us left camp in a three-truck caravan. We pulled off the gravel county road and drove another few miles down a two-track as we crossed several cattle grates.
Lloyd went off alone, but Tom and Ed went with his two Labrador retrievers into a vast hillside of sagebrush. Pat and I headed out with two of our bracco Italianos toward some sage-choked drainages that ended on the shore of a reservoir. We’d been making plans to chase dusky grouse once we got our two-bird limits of sage grouse, but after a couple of hours that plan was starting to feel foolish. We hadn’t seen a single gamebird, despite having multiple parties pounding the ground with a lot of enthusiasm. It started to seem as though finding these birds was going to be like trying to find a black cat in a coal cellar.
After a break for the dogs, we decided to drive a little farther to check out another area. Along the way, the guys in the lead vehicle spotted a flock of the birds near a snow-fence. Most of the flock took off and landed out in the middle of a massive sea of knee-high sagebrush, but two of the birds peeled away from the group and ran up a very steep hillside without ever taking flight. We headed straight toward the horizon where the birds landed. That’s where Bravo scored his first-ever point on a sage grouse—and where I scored my first two misses.
Tom managed to fold the bird I missed. Ed had warned us about what he calls the “sage grouse popcorn effect,” which is when a flock will take off at irregular intervals before they all leave. As a second bird took off, I fumbled for two more shells and then watched a third leap into flight. I dropped the bird with an off-the-shoulder shot that left me feeling like Annie Oakley. Bravo retrieved the bird after a short chase and I was soon overjoyed to feel the surprising heft of my first sage grouse in my hunting vest. Another bird flushed from my left and flew directly over Ed, the second one Tom dropped.
We decided to follow the two sage grouse from the earlier flock. Once spooked, these birds would rather hold tight than travel to other loafing grounds. Ed’s two Labradors got “birdy.” Pat almost stepped on a grouse before it busted. He rocked the bird with his first shot and then Ed anchored it. At that point we had four sage grouse on our first full day of hunting, which felt like a significant accomplishment.
Lloyd, on the other hand, covered twenty one miles according to his dog’s collar. And they hadn’t seen a single bird. We walked much farther the next two days, but never flushed another sage grouse. It always felt like we were doing everything right—identifying good habitat, approaching it with the wind in our faces, using contours to our advantage, hunting the lee side of hills during high wind—but no matter what we tried, our tactics were no match for the survival skills of this rare and nomadic bird.
In hindsight, I’m content with the fact that we killed only a handful of sage grouse on this long and demanding hunt. Until we’re able to get the species back on its feet, with stable and growing populations, it’s wise for hunters to practice some restraint. We have an obligation to restore the sage grouse’s habitat, a task that requires hunter engagement and financial commitment. Limited hunting should be regarded as a key component to those efforts, just as it was with hunter-based efforts to restore the wild turkey, the whitetail deer, and so many species of waterfowl. Hopefully, I’ll return to hunt sage grouse some day in the future.
Ron Boehme is the host of The Hunting Dog Podcast. He has had a passion for bird hunting since 1973, when he bought his first license to chase pheasants in his home state of Illinois. Since that time, he has hunted in 22 states and 3 provinces, mostly with a bird dog by his side. A move to Michigan allowed him to build his kennel, Dancing Duke Kennels, and begin a lifetime membership with the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association where he is currently a Senior Judge. Ron is currently ranked 39th among the top 10 wingshooters in the country