HELENA — The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission approved a plan Thursday to close all or parts of 32 counties to sage-grouse hunting and to shorten the hunting season from two months to one.
Commissioners voted unanimously for the plan in response to low numbers from this spring’s count of the game birds on their breeding grounds. The count was the lowest since 1980, and the federal government is considering listing the bird as a threatened or endangered species next year across the West.
State officials say the birds’ decline is primarily because of the loss of habitat, but hunting can contribute to a further decline once the population dips to a certain level.
The state’s management plan calls for closures if the number of male sage grouse drops below 45 percent of the long-term average count for three years. Fish, Wildlife and Parks agency officials say two of the state’s management zones are below that threshold this year, and the third is hovering right at it.
The closures include eastern Montana, the area in the northern part of the state above U.S. Highway 2 and isolated populations such as the Shields Valley.
That will 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. Eleven western and northwestern counties are considered out of the sage grouse’s range and were already closed to hunting.
The commission also approved guidelines to reopening the closed hunting grounds. The public process for reopening an area can begin once the count exceeds the 45 percent long-term average for three years, or is higher than that average count in any given year.
Agency officials earlier this year proposed canceling the 2014 hunt, but they came up with this new plan after receiving more than 200 comments, mostly negative. Hunting groups reluctantly agreed with the changed proposal.
“Hunting isn’t the reason sage grouse is in decline in Montana or the rest of the West. It’s habitat loss,” said Ben Deeble of the Big Sky Upland Game Bird Association. What’s more, he added, banning hunting hasn’t proven to be an effective way to restore population numbers.
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 with about 45,000 in 1983.
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