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Harvest Management

The Following discussion of Recreational Disturbance of Sage-Grouse in Montana was taken from the Montana Management Plan and Strategies for Sage-Grouse in Montana – Final 2005. Signatory agencies to the plan are the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Montana Natural Resource and Conservation, USDA, Forest Service, Regional Office, USDI, Bureau of Land Management and USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Hunting is a direct form of mortality to sage-grouse. There is disagreement concerning its overall impact on sage-grouse populations. Some believe that hunting sage-grouse is compatible with healthy sage-grouse populations, while others do not think “surplus birds” should be removed from what they see as a species “at risk.”

Sage-grouse abundance is affected by long- and short-term population changes. In Montana, long-term population declines have been related to loss of sagebrush habitats essential to sage-grouse (Martin 1970, Swenson et al. 1987). Although not irreversible in nature, conditions resulting in long-term declines are likely to persist. Within the long-term decline are short-term fluctuations (Eustace 2002) in sage-grouse abundance, which appear cyclic in nature, reaching a low point mid-way through each decade. Variable climatic events, e.g., drought or severe winters, contribute to short-term changes in abundance (Edwards 1988).

Sage-grouse hunting is an economically, recreationally, and culturally important tradition in many areas. In sagebrush habitats, sage-grouse often are the only upland bird available for harvest, providing a recreational opportunity that would otherwise be unavailable over millions of acres. Analysis of wings collected from hunters is the best source of information on annual productivity of sage-grouse and the influence of changing climatic conditions on productivity and population composition. Juvenile/adult ratios generated by wing analysis also can indicate approaching changes in male attendance on leks in subsequent years. Lek counts, which determine the number of active leks, are the best source of population trend information.

Sage-grouse exhibit relatively low productivity and high survival when compared with other upland birds in Montana, which lends a degree of stability to the population. Nevertheless, sage-grouse have significantly declined or have been extirpated in some areas of the state. Although loss or degradation of habitat, coupled with shifts in weather patterns and changes in predator composition and abundance, is largely responsible for local extirpation and population declines, harvest may be additive to natural mortality in some situations. In such cases, harvest could contribute to local declines or slow recovery of sage-grouse populations. Developing an adaptive harvest management strategy (see Adaptive Harvest Strategy in the Appendix), based on monitoring of population trends, i.e., lek surveys, allows for more liberal seasons where populations are documented to be stable or increasing. If habitat becomes restricted and population trends decline, or the status is unknown because of a lack of monitoring, seasons should be conservative or suspended. Although sage-grouse population status and trends vary across Montana, recent harvest regulations are uniform across the state. More regional flexibility may benefit isolated populations.

Please access Montana Plan and Conservation Strategies for Sage-Grouse in Montana – Final on the Sage-Grouse Management page of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Web site.