Wyoming should adopt a species-specific permit system for the sage grouse hunt to better accommodate the fall catch, a university professor recently told a state panel.
A sage-grouse hunting regime that takes less than about 10% of the fall population has no additional effect on the species’ annual natural mortality, the academic and a colleague also told the Wyoming Sage Grouse implementation team.
SGIT members have called for a review of the hunt after learning that hunters last season shot about 7600 the sage grouse of Wyoming. Hunters are still chasing Greater Sage-Grouse in seven of the 11 States that house the chicken-sized bird, although the number of grouse alarmingly diminished over the past decades. The hunt begins in two of Wyoming’s four regions September 18.
“We did not find … any harvesting effect on the powder [River Basin] or the Wyoming Basin, ”said Jeffrey Beck, professor at the University of Wyoming, of the two sage-grouse management areas in Wyoming where hunting has been permitted. Along with Jonathan Dinkins, a professor at Oregon State University, he summarized historical and ongoing research earlier this month.
The presentation elicited a mixed reaction from SGIT members.
“Are we harming the people by hunting at conservative levels [we have]? ”SGIT President Bob Budd asked rhetorically after the meeting.“ The answer was no. ”
However, the presentation did not appease the director of the National Audubon Society’s Mugwort Ecosystem Initiative and SGIT team member Brian Rutledge. The sage-grouse, he said, should be managed more strictly – “much more like a trophy species than a game bird”.
How and if hunting affects the sage grouse, “we cannot draw these conclusions with what [information] we have, ”Rutledge told WyoFile.
A network of postmen
Beck and Dinkins described the web of factors, including hunting, that impact Sage-Grouse populations. The distinction between “additive” and “compensatory” mortality determines the management of wild game hunting, they said in their presentation which relied on hunting information dating back to the 1870s.
Compensatory mortality occurs when hunters kill an amount of birds that is roughly equal to the “doomed surplus” of a population – the number of animals that would die anyway because of, say, an area. limited wintering. Additive mortality reduces a population beyond what would occur naturally, according to the framework proposed in 1936.
“Wildlife agencies tend to focus on hunting this group of surplus animals that [would be] die for other reasons, ”Beck told the panel. Based on this theory, researchers first proposed in 2000 no more than a harvest of 10% of the estimated fall population of sage-grouse, he said.
A 2010 study in Colorado and Utah that included information on banded birds confirmed this limit, finding no evidence that harvesting less than 11% of a fall population created additive mortality. Others believe in a 5% limit, Beck said, to ensure a conservative approach.
Hunting, however, should not take place in colonies that have fewer than 300 birds in the spring, the researchers said.
The hunting limit, whether it is 11%, 10% or 5% of a fall population, is however complicated by the difficulty of estimating this number of falls. The standard method of estimating trends in grouse populations focuses on the spring count of males.
Most wildlife agencies compare the number of leks from year to year to discern trends. Most do not estimate, at least publicly, overall numbers for the spring or the post-nesting period in the fall.
In recent decades, as scientists have started to see the numbers of Greater Sage-Grouse plummet, however, they have started to suggest different strategies for hunting permits, the professors said. About 20 years ago, some researchers “started talking about the sage grouse almost like a trophy species,” Beck said.
“If you are going to pursue the sage grouse, you have to consider that this is a really limited resource. [because] few states have hunting seasons, ”Beck said, describing the bird’s semi-elite status.
Wyoming’s licensing system may not reflect this value, however.
Wyoming game bird license allow holders to hunt sage grouse, black grouse, ruffed grouse, chukar partridge, gray partridge, sharp-tailed grouse and pheasants. Seasons, daily bag limits and possession limits vary by species and region. Hunting waterfowl and other migratory game birds such as doves and snipe requires the same permit, as well as additional stamps and permits. A bird permit costs $ 9 to $ 22, depending on residence and duration.
The multi-species license is not conducive to collecting accurate data on the annual toll of individual species, Dinkins told the panel. He recommended a system in which sage-grouse hunters would purchase species-specific permits, allowing wildlife managers to collect more and better information.
“The permit-only system, or something close to it, would be really ideal for a couple of reasons.” said Dinkins. Better data comes when “the more specific and targeted you are, the more requirements you have. [you have] for your hunters.
Benefits of a permit system
Today, Game and Fish obtains valuable information when hunters willfully put a wing of each shot sage-grouse into a collecting barrel. Game and Fish places barrels at various locations around the state.
By examining a wing, biologists can determine the sex of the harvested bird, whether it was a chick or an adult and, in the case of hens, even more. “You can tell if they had a successful nest or brood,” Dinkins said.
Despite the value of this information, the wing cannons have shortcomings. “You can only install a wing cannon in so many places,” Dinkins said. The submission of the wings remains incomplete for various reasons.
A licensing system could correct some of these shortcomings. By including envelopes with permits, for example, hunters could send harvested bird wings to Game and Fish, which would result in more accurate data.
There are obvious costs to implementing a more rigorous method of collecting wings, Dinkins said. “It’s much easier for Oregon, California, Utah [where] they don’t shoot as many birds, ”he said.
Managers could also use a permitting system to minimize the type of excessive catch that is possible under current catch / possession limit regulations. For example, in a seven-day season with a limit of two birds per day and four in possession, a single hunter could take more than a dozen birds.
“If you ate sage grouse all week, you could eat 14,” while staying within the letter of the law, Dinkins said.
Permits could also be used to limit the number of hunters in a specific area. The ability to better control the number and distribution of hunters could be advantageous for Wyoming, as it faces more pressure from non-resident hunters when other states limit opportunities, Dinkins said.
A permit system would also help assure the public that game managers are closely monitoring the species. Given the fragile nature of the sage grouse population throughout the west, optics may become increasingly important.
“The public has the impression that [with] only allow hunting, there are stricter regulations, ”Dinkins said. “We’re just getting better data. “
More and better data
In their review of hunting reports, the two professors found that traditional surveys overestimate the success of hunters for a variety of reasons. Small sample sizes from mail surveys, for example, easily skew the results, they said. In addition, “you tend to have more successful hunters who send you back [responses] over to you, ”Dinkins told the panel, and those who were unsuccessful do not respond.
These responses were wrongly extrapolated from traditional postal surveys to give a skewed crop result, he said.
Dinkins sought to correlate hunting closures in various parts of the West with demographic trends, but found few relationships.
But regulatory changes affect the number of birds slaughtered each fall, according to the presentation. Pushing back the opening date of the season, limiting the number of grouse that can be caught in a day and limiting the number of grouse authorized in possession can moderate the annual balance sheet.
But the fate of the grouse seems most closely related to the health and unspoiled nature of the bird’s habitat. Everything from drought to fires, invasive weeds, wild horses and invasive junipers are having an effect on the species, the two said. Human activities and developments such as oil and gas sites, residential developments, transmission lines and wind turbines fragment the habitat to the detriment of the bird.
Budd has confidence in the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, he said, the agency which has a phalanx of biologists and is responsible for managing wildlife and recommending hunting seasons and regulations. SGIT, a panel appointed by the governor, has no such authority or duty.
Rutledge wants more talk about the hunt, he said, disputing claims that today’s take in Wyoming is compensatory.
“There is nothing like it in this species,” he said. “Whenever you’re in decline, it’s hard to say simply what’s compensating. We don’t have that data.
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“I’m looking for more information from Game and Fish,” he said. “I want to understand how they make their decisions. We haven’t come full circle.
Many of the agency’s biologists listened to SGIT’s presentation, Hunting and Fishing Department sage-grouse and sage-grouse biologist Leslie Schreiber wrote in an email. She will be bringing them together soon to review and discuss the presentation and other Sage-Grouse issues, she said.