An interesting thing happened in Wyoming (of all places) the other day. A member of the state’s Sage Grouse Implementation Team asked whether sage-grouse hunting in that state makes sense anymore. He noted that sage-grouse hunters killed nearly 900 sage-grouse hens the year before.
Sage-grouse have suffered a well-known, well-documented long-term decline in numbers across its range. Over the past 10 years, western states voluntarily put together conservation plans to help the bird. Their efforts were successful in that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) decided in 2015 that sage-grouse did not require listing under the Endangered Species Act.
Here in Nevada, Governor Sandoval and the Nevada Legislature established the Nevada Sagebrush Ecosystem Program (NSEP) in 2012-2013 as part of the conservation effort by western states. While preservation and protection of our critical sagebrush ecosystem was its charge and its focus, NSEP’s purpose was to do what was needed to fend off ESA listing of sage-grouse for fear of unpleasant restrictions on uses of Nevada’s expansive public lands should listing occur.
Do we hunt sage-grouse in Nevada?
From a day or two here to a couple of weeks there, Nevada has an annual (limited) sage-grouse hunting season. The question is: given declining numbers and other troublesome data, combined with the limited season, should sage-grouse hunting still occur? Or is it now a boutique event that verges on an embarrassment to the state?
In the face of declining numbers and a problematic future, how do NDOW and the Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners (NBWC) justify sage-grouse hunting in Nevada? They say two things:
- They believe that sage-grouse hunting, as currently conducted in Nevada, does not “harm” the sage-grouse population despite the killing of +/- 1500-2000 birds per year.
- NDOW obtains important reproductive information (nesting success) by examining wings voluntarily surrendered by hunters from their dead birds.
(Note: many methods of non-lethal study of wildlife are used worldwide.)
Hunters are told their kills are “compensatory” …. assurance that sage-grouse populations suffer no harm from their activity, and actually benefit from hunting. The theory…nay, the notion, is by killing some birds, those that remain alive will be slightly better off…more food, more water, more space…and (hopefully) better reproduction…making up for losses to hunters.
Unfortunately, NDOW data doesn’t support that notion.
A less visible yet paramount motivation for NDOW and NBWC to continue sage-grouse hunting in Nevada has to do with something we call “hunter opportunity”. Much larger than just two simple words, this concept…this fundamental operating principle… is a motivational/values statement which dictates decisions by NDOW and NBWC that may appear to place the interests of hunters above those of wildlife.
NBWC and NDOW are very reluctant to take any action to diminish “hunter opportunity.” They are always searching for more “hunter opportunity,” not less. Removing “hunter opportunity” exposes them to criticism by sportsmen who might disagree with their decision.
In a way, sage-grouse hunting in Nevada comes down to two choices: “hunter opportunity” versus a “threshold” which, when exceeded, would trigger cessation of sage-grouse hunting.
When are declining sage-grouse kill numbers, low chick production and the rest sufficient to call a halt to the hunting of the bird? When will dismal survival numbers override “hunter opportunity” in favor of protection for the bird? There is no “threshold” now.
On June 25-26, 2021, the NBWC will meet in Winnemucca to consider hunting seasons for upland game birds (which includes sage-grouse). What are the odds that the wildlife commission will look at its own data, decide enough is enough, and terminate sage-grouse hunting in Nevada? We all know the probable answer to that.
What are the odds that the wildlife commission will establish a “threshold” beyond which sage-grouse will be offered protection from hunters? We all know the likely answer to that question too.
So, the question remains: when (and how) will the bird get a break?
Don Molde is a 50-year Reno resident, retired psychiatrist, co-founder of Nevada Wildlife Alliance, former board member of Defenders of Wildlife, and former board member of the Nevada Humane Society. He has been active in wildlife advocacy for 45 years. Support Don’s work here.
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