Sage Advice: If Loss of Habitat Causes Bird Numbers to Drop, Don't Take It Out on Hunters

Why should anybody care about the three-day sage grouse season in Wyoming?

Following up on Chad Love's recent posts on the sage grouse hunting season controversy in Wyoming, it occurs to me that many hunters across the U.S. probably have no idea why this is news, or why anybody other than the few people left who hunt sage grouse should be concerned about it. I've lived in the West for 23 years and have killed one sage grouse. Growing up in Alabama I wouldn't have recognized a sage grouse if you hit me in the head with one. So what's the deal?

Bowing to tremendous pressure from hunters and falconers, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission backed away from a hunting season closure. But the attempted closure was a warning shot fired across the bow of American sportsman, a shot we will ignore at the peril of losing most of what we have fought for over the past century and more. Because hunting sage grouse does not imperil the birds' survival as a species one whit. It never has. What imperils the survival of the sage grouse is habitat loss, and when a state game and fish agency shuts down a hunting season instead of addressing the real peril that faces the birds, we can all sit up and take notice.

If the sage grouse season, important to only a few hardcore bird hunters and falconers, is taken away, mule deer, antelope, and elk would be next. And why not? Mule deer numbers in the booming gas fields of Wyoming's Upper Green River values continue to fall dramatically, even as thousands of new gas wells are planned. Check out this story from the Casper Star-Tribune, which says that already, people are starting to question whether there is a viable population of muleys left to hunt.

"There was the feeling here in Wyoming that this sage grouse closure was the first domino," said Linda Baker, a hunter, Pinedale librarian, and organizer for the Upper Green River Valley Coalition, a group that has tried for over a decade to work with federal land managers and the energy industry to protect the wildlife and other resources in her part of Wyoming. "We had two days' notice that the season would be shut down. Even some of the Game and Fish Commissioners had not heard about it. I've made a habit of being a moderate, and being objective, but this was just too much."

Baker said that the hunting and falconry community came together at record speed. She drove the 6 hours from her rural house in the Green River to the Game and Fish Commission meeting in Casper. She had plenty of company. "It was a big turnout, every seat filled," Baker said. "The first item on the agenda was Wyoming's wolf season, and later, one of the commissioners said that he could not believe it- for the first time, the sage grouse had brought out more people than the wolves!"

The hunting season closure was quickly quashed by the commission. But the problems that led to the proposal are only getting worse. "You've got an 80% reduction in sage grouse numbers in the Powder River Basin, with 20,000 more wells still to be developed there. A 47% reduction on the Pinedale Anticline, 36% reduction on the Jonah Field. We're looking at 10,000 more wells in the next decade, plus the development of the Prospect Mountains area, which is fantastic mule deer country, lots of sage grouse, and pretty virgin territory. You have to ask yourself, what's the plan? Mule deer numbers down 60% on the Anticline, so we're going to just shut down the deer hunting? Really? When does this end?"

As Baker and just about anyone else who follows energy in the U.S. will point out: natural gas prices have fallen to record lows at the moment, with a glut of gas so extreme that the U.S. might soon run out of places to store it. However, for the industry, relief is on the way. Liquefied natural gas export terminals are under construction in Sabine Pass, Louisiana and in Coos Bay, Oregon to supply the insatiable Asian energy markets. When the U.S. becomes the natural gas supplier to these economies, drilling and exploration is expected to boom as never before.

The model that will be followed on public lands for this boom? The Pinedale Anticline, or Pinedale Anticline Project Area (PAPA), which has been touted by industry and government officials as an example of balanced and responsible energy development.