HELENA — Montana wildlife officials have dropped their plans to cancel this year’s sage grouse hunting season, and they are instead proposing to severely limit where the game birds can be pursued because of their low numbers.
The state Fish and Wildlife Commission is scheduled to vote Thursday on the plan to close hunting in all or parts of 32 counties across northern, eastern and southern Montana, in addition to the 11 western counties that are already closed.
That would leave a swath of 13 counties across the central part of the state and six southwestern Montana counties open to hunting sage grouse this fall.
Fish, Wildlife and Parks agency officials are also proposing to shorten the hunting season from two months to one in an effort to prevent overharvesting in the areas that remain open.
This spring’s count of birds on sage-grouse breeding grounds are at their lowest since 1980. The federal government is considering listing the bird as a threatened or endangered species next year, which would take management out of state hands — something the Fish, Wildlife and Parks agency is seeking to avoid.
“The ultimate goal is to maintain the species, and we believe the best mechanism to do that is as a state-managed bird and not as a listed species,” said Quentin Kujala, management bureau chief for the state agency’s wildlife division.
The state agency initially proposed canceling the 2014 hunt, but it reconsidered after pushback from hunters and further analyzing the final population data. More than 200 public comments were received, Kujala said.
Hunters said they should not be penalized for population declines that are largely driven by threats to the sage grouse’s habitat, not hunting.
“The department’s proposal to completely close the season statewide really came out of left field, without any engagement of stakeholders like hunters,” said Ben Deeble of the Big Sky Upland Bird Association. “Normally, when an agency recommends something this draconian, it’s a process that involves the public.”
Dave Chadwick, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, said his group can live with the new proposal.
“It sounds like we were heard,” he said. “They got our message on that.”
Kajala said the state’s management plan calls for a closure if the number of male sage grouse drops below 45 percent of the long-term average count for three years in one area. The Fish, Wildlife and Parks agency divides the state into three sage grouse-management zones, two of which were below that threshold this year and one hovering right at it.
The 2014 data detailing those affected areas served as the basis for the alternative closure plan that is up for a vote on Thursday.
Sage grouse live in sagebrush and grasslands. They are known for gathering in spring in breeding grounds called leks, where the males puff themselves out and dance for females searching for mates.
Hunters killed more than 2,800 sage grouse in Montana in 2012, compared to about 45,000 in 1983.
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