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Sage Grouse: Game Bird Profile

The ultimate open-country, public land upland bird; the king of the plains.

Sage Grouse: Game Bird Profile

Nearly every hunt for sage grouse follows a familiar arc of doubt, discomfort, and ultimately unexpected success. It’s just that some hunts take longer than others to deliver the payoff. (Photo By: John Hafner)

If you’re reading this then you’ve probably dreamed about and discussed a road trip for these iconic birds of the Western sage, the largest North American grouse, and in some ways the most complicated. I’m not going to talk you out of your bucket-list hunt, but rather prepare you for the arc of despair.

It usually reaches its zenith a couple of hours into a hunt, as you’re parched and sunburned in a horizontal wilderness of same-looking sagebrush, terrified your dog will encounter a rattlesnake on each false point. You’re wishing you had brought more water and mosquito repellent, wondering how long West Nile Virus takes to infiltrate your bloodstream. Other wonderments: how the September sun can generate so much heat after such a frosty morning, and whether or not your sweaty grip will permanently stain the patina of your shotgun. You’re equally worried about stepping on a rattlesnake. Or a Vibram-penetrating cactus spike, as you calculate just how far you’ve hiked from your pickup, and exactly where you parked it over the rim of the distant shimmering horizon.

Depending on the place and the day, you are also likely to be cursing either the relentless wind or the adhesive properties of gumbo, which will stick to your boots the way shame sticks to a bad dog.

pointing dog in desert sage country
Even for hunters with wide-ranging dogs, sage grouse can often flush wild and unexpectedly. That behavior puts a premium on covering lots of ground. (Photo By: Seth Bynum)

Just as you’re distracted by some discomfort or other, the prairie quivers imperceptibly and then levitates. A sage grouse flush is almost always astonishing—dozens of chicken-sized birds rising at once, causing momentary disbelief at how so many black birds of that size could stay out of sight in the wide-open prairie. Then you recall why you’re here, and reactively shoot behind the first bird. You get your lead right on the second, but only because of the slow, lumbering flight as stragglers get their wings beneath them. A third shot is futile, because they’re now in full sail and fast out of range.

But you savor this moment, bending to retrieve a downed sage grouse, holding its unexpectedly hot body, and admiring its cloak of cryptic feathers the way you’d inspect an arrowhead picked up from this open, undiscovered country.

Then the prairie wind shatters your reverie, and you lead your dog in a broad semicircle to get the breeze in your face to flush the singles. This time, you’re ready.

I just described an average sage grouse hunt. Bell curves being what they are, some hunts will produce birds in the first minutes of a walk, others won’t bust a flush in a full day of hiking. But in productive sage grouse country, you can pretty much count on at least one or two encounters with a covey of bombers, sage chickens, June chickens, sage cock, and sagehens, all local names for these remarkable inhabitants of America’s sagebrush sea.

Each flush, and each bird, is indelible, but the first is unforgettable. That’s the real payoff of a sage grouse hunt.

sage cock sage grouse displaying
The sage grouse remains as king of the plains. (Photo By: Cjchiker/

Go Sooner Than Later

There’s a saying familiar to residents of the interior West: This is next-year country. It’s a term locals use to describe the guarded optimism that floats hope in a landscape that receives less than 20 inches of rainfall annually, and where the difference between a farm-saving crop and foreclosure hangs on every storm front. But it’s also a useful term to describe sage grouse and the hunters who live to flush them.

Even before the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service considered the species as a candidate for its threatened-and-endangered list in 2013, there had been an unease among ranchers and hunters regarding sage grouse numbers, from northern California’s Modoc Valley east to Colorado’s Western Slope and north through the flyover terrain of central Wyoming and eastern Montana. Grouse numbers were declining, in some places precipitously.

Declines of bombers align closely with the loss of sagebrush. The connection makes sense when you consider the obligatory relationship between bird and plant. Sage grouse are one of the few gallinaceous (ground-nesting) birds that lack a muscular gizzard used to grind grain, seeds, and other hard foods, so they’re dependent on soft forage. In the spring and summer, sage grouse pivot to insects, but for the majority of the year, the leathery leaf of sagebrush is the most reliable foodstuff, whether in a drought or a blizzard. Lose sagebrush, and you predictably, inexorably, lose sage grouse.

The loss of sagebrush can be attributed to a host of factors, including wildfires that scorch the range and allow invasive cheatgrass to gain a competitive edge over native plants, farmers who plow up sage to plant wheat and alfalfa, and human developments such as roads and subdivisions that carve swaths of sagebrush into ecological islands incapable of sustaining landscape-scale critters such as grouse and antelope.

Regardless of the specifics of its myriad declines, sage grouse populations are estimated to be about 10 percent of their pre-settlement numbers across the West. More recently, biologists have determined that males at spring breeding grounds—called leks—have declined by two percent rangewide every year since 1965.

sage grouse mating display
The sage grouse "dance" is an iconic sight to see. The mating dance includes males strutting and fanning their tail feathers. (Photo By: John Hafner)

Hunting has ended in much of the Great Basin, including all of California and Washington, and seasons and bag limits are carefully controlled in most other states.

The relative strongholds of the species are in those places where extensive stands of sagebrush remain: central Wyoming, southeastern Idaho, and eastern Montana (where I live and hunt).

But the future for sage grouse hunting is unsettled. The last time sage grouse were considered for threatened and endangered status, in 2015, the federal government declined to list the species, citing the success of collaborative conservation work by states, landowners, and non-governmental organizations. But whether that decision will be upheld by the new administration is anyone’s guess.

I mentioned this is next-year country. For sage grouse hunters, maybe it’s better to call it this-year country.

Sage Grouse Hunting Opportunities

Every year, both the areas and the hunting seasons for sage grouse diminishes in the 11 states where they are native. The West’s most liberal seasons are in Montana—where the entire month of September is open—but if you’re interested in hunting states in the Great Basin, learn to navigate the permit process for surprisingly good hunting. Note that season details may change on short notice, so definitely research any state you are interested in hunting before you make final arrangements.

Montana: Sept. 1–30. Limit is two birds per day, and four in possession.

Wyoming: The state is divided into areas, where different season dates and other rules apply. The best hunting is in Area 1, central and southwestern Wyoming, where the season runs Sept. 15–30 and the bag limit is two with four in possession.

Idaho: Read the regs carefully, as much of the state is closed to sage grouse hunting. The best region is south of the Snake River and Interstate 84, where the season runs Sept. 19–25. The daily bag is a single bird and the possession limit is two.

Utah: All sage grouse hunting is by special permit, but if you’re lucky enough to draw, four areas are open: Diamond Mountain in the southeast part of the state, Parker Mountain in the central, Rich County near Bear Lake, and West Box Elder county in the north. Limit is two birds per season, which runs three weeks from late September through mid-October.

Colorado: The Centennial State has a 2-day season in North Park and a 6-day season in mid-September in a handful of game management units on the Western Slope.

Nevada: Season dates and bag limits are unique to clusters of hunting districts, but the best is Humboldt and Eureka counties. Note that hunting is closed to non-residents in all but a portion of Unit 033 on the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, where hunting is allowed for two days in late September and 2 birds are allowed daily, and 4 in possession.

Hunting the Sagebrush Sea

Like most upland birds, sage grouse are where you find them. While they can migrate many miles between spring and winter ranges, in the fall they’ll generally stay within a few sections. But finding them can burn hours of time and miles of hiking across otherwise empty prairie.

I have my best luck hunting riparian corridors in big blocks of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) ground. Their fidelity to water is especially noticeable in dry years, when the birds seek cover in the shade of streamside sagebrush, bugs in the riparian grass, and pools of stagnant water in the streambed. These streams, many of them intermittent or entirely dewatered come September, bend and curl through so much neighboring sagebrush that even if you don’t flush flocks along the waterway, their routes will lead you through promising country.

Upland bird hunters in sage country
Sage grouse live in big, dry country where stands of sagebrush remain, making for a taxing quarry for both hunter and dog. (Photo By: Andrew McKean)

Keep your eyes peeled for squiggles and spurts of sage grouse droppings. Most of these leavings will look like cashew nuts, but you’ll also see tar-like blotches. This is sage grouse scat, and where you find fresh scat, you’ll find birds near at hand.

Given how pungent sage grouse smell—like a distillation of sagebrush—the birds don’t leave abundant scent on the ground. Neither do they run, like pheasants or even sharp-tailed grouse do. That means that, even for hunters with wide-ranging dogs, sage grouse can often flush wild and unexpectedly. That behavior puts a premium on covering lots of ground, which brings up a few additional considerations.

thunderclouds on the prairie
Be prepared to encounter formidable weather in the open country of the sagebrush sea. (Photo By: Seth Bynum)

The first is water. This is bone-dry country, and any water on the landscape is likely to be bilious. Bring your own, more than you think you’ll need for yourself and your dog. Also, bring bug dope. Prairie mosquitoes can be relentless, mainly because they’re desperate. Warm blood is as scarce as water here, and many of these “skeeters” carry West Nile Virus, which has been a scourge of sage grouse and can leave you flu-like symptoms and fatigue long after your hunt.

Second, rattlesnakes are ubiquitous. If you haven’t averse-conditioned your dog to snakes, then it pays to keep them close. Snakes will be more active on warmer afternoons, so hunt on chilly mornings if you’re uncertain how your dog will react to a snake encounter.

Other hazards of sage grouse country include porcupines, which inhabit even treeless plains, as well as stabbing cactus. I always pack a multi-tool with good pliers to extract the thorns and barbs that are as much a part of this country as the wind and dust.

Lastly, keep in mind that this is the rarest and most precious of our huntable grouse species. Be selective in your shooting and take. If you wing a bird but can’t recover it, consider it part of your bag limit. And if you’re hunting for an adult—a big mature “bomber”—then watch the covey rise and wait for the largest, blackest bird of the bunch. Then take good care of your bird. Cool the carcass as quickly as you can and cherish the opportunity to take one of the greatest trophies of our landscape and our time.

It’s anyone’s guess how long we’ll have the opportunity. After all, a sage grouse is the very embodiment of next-year country.

Upland bird hunter and Labrador with sage grouse
The author and his Lab, Nellie, with a couple of hard-earned Montana sage grouse. (Photo By: Andrew McKean)
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