I should be pulling on my vest, stuffing shells in pockets and uncasing my shotgun. Instead, I walk a few steps from the truck, snap off a stalk of sage, crush it between thumb and fingers and bring it to my nose. There is no greater smell to a hunter trapped in the pines and pavement of the eastern United States than sagebrush. It is, I'm certain, exactly what freedom smells like.
Just days earlier, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that greater sage grouse would not be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Twelve of us â€“ conservationists, writers and policy shapers â€“ are here to celebrate the salvation of the iconic western bird the way all bird hunters celebrate: by following a brace of English setters, a griffon and a German shorthair as they weave through eastern Montana's endless sea of sage and tawny grass.
These days, finding a few birds is no easy task. Despite the Service's decision, sage grouse as a species are in trouble. The iconic bird used to number in the millions, at least by some counts, with a range that extended from Texas to southern Canada and from California to eastern Colorado.
Now there are an estimated 200,000 to 400,000. Their range has dwindled to just a fraction of what it was. In many ways, they are a bellwether species. As sage grouse go, so do the 350 other sage-dependent species throughout the west.
Part of the Service's decision to keep the birds off the ESL was based on groups like the American Prairie Reserve. The non-profit, privately-funded conservancy is slowly buying private Montana prairie and public grazing rights with the ultimate goal of returning the landscape back to pristine wildlife habitat. To date they've acquired over 300,000 acres. Mostly, though, the decision was the culmination of an unprecedented level of effort and cooperation among groups that are often at odds with each other, says Sage Grouse Initiative science advisor Dr. Dave Naugle.
"The energy industry, the ranching community, state governments, sporting groups and a number of conservation organizations all worked together," says Naugle. "So far the Sage Grouse Initiative has invested $750 million in conservation efforts since sage grouse were designated a candidate species in 2010. We are making progress."
It's not as though those groups necessarily wanted to work together, says Backcountry Hunters & Anglers executive director Land Tawney, also here to celebrate the decision.
"They had to," he says. "If energy, ranching and conservation interests didn't come up with a solution, there were likely going to be some pretty big changes handed down by the federal government if sage grouse were listed. They saw the writing on the wall."
Adds BHA communications director Katie McKalip: "This is an issue that has the potential to affect more than just the grouse â€“ hundreds of species of wildlife, including numerous upland species, rely on the sage steppe, which spans millions of acres in the West."
Threats From Every Direction
The threats to the big birds, however, are somewhat unique. Sensitive to anything that might serve as a perch to hawks, their primary predator, the birds avoid areas with anything that juts up from the landscape. That's getting harder to do these days. Cell towers, drilling rigs, power line poles and even invasive trees push sage grouse into smaller pockets of habitat, says Naugle.
"In places like Montana, the expansion of wheat has had a significant impact," he adds.
Ranchers doze sage flats to make room for crops. Habitat fragmentation from oil and gas development is a significant factor in places like Wyoming, and invasive plants like cheatgrass are taking their toll on grouse habitat, as well.
There are threats even here in north-central Montana, where pronghorn antelope outnumber humans and all seems perfect. Fences, mile upon mile of fences, are bad for the birds, too.
One of the hunters on our trip is Hayley Newman, sage grouse project coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation. She, along with a number of volunteers, spent the summer hanging plastic squares on the top strand on 47 miles of fence near known sage grouse breeding grounds, known as leks. She jokes about Montana's scorching summer heat, mosquitoes that would shame an Alaskan and the isolation, but it's clear Newman is committed to the job and the birds.
"They can collide with the top strand when the light is low. Studies have shown that a grouse is killed about every mile a year," explains Newman, a 30-year-old daughter of "California hippies."
To Hunt Or Not
One per mile may seem like an insignificant number, particularly when we are doing our best to pluck as many as two per person from the local population. Which raises a perfectly legitimate question: If the birds are in trouble, why are we still hunting them?
"In some places, we have large, sustainable populations and in other places, there are small, isolated pockets of grouse that can't be hunted," explains Naugle. "State wildlife agencies have done a very good job of identifying areas where hunting will have no impact on overall populations and areas where it could be harmful, which are not open to hunting."
Bag limits are low (just two per day in Montana) and seasons are short. Montana's runs the month of September; Wyoming's is just 12 days; and hunters in Idaho get just one week. Five other states also have limited seasons.
We have just two days to claim our prizes, so we waste little time. Newman and three other hunters take off in one direction as Tawney, McKalip and I head the other way. The rest strike out, as well.
Tawney's griffon, Jane, bounces through the sage in front of us, testing the dry air for any hint of bird. It's not even 10, but the distant hills shimmer in the rising warmth. The dogs are wearing down. Hunters are too, and we have yet to see a grouse. Four hours and 10 miles later, we limp back to the trucks.
As we wait for the other groups, we hear the unmistakable pops of shotguns and the hoots and cheers of a successful group of hunters. Someone plucked a single bird from a covey of a dozen or more. We admire the lone sage grouse and rehash the day before heading back to our cabin, where we decide to search for the same birds the next day.
A cooler morning finds us on the same vast sage flat that stretches in all directions. Nearly everything we see, says Newman, is Bureau of Land Management ground open to hunting. There isn't a house or another vehicle and just a few distant trees in sight. It is, agree Newman and Tawney, ideal sage grouse habitat.
Hours later, I wonder if the birds know that. We wade through vast sage thickets, through knee-high yellow grass and up and down brushy, birdy-looking draws. Tawney's griffon covers all of it.
As we circle back to the trucks empty-handed once again, we hear more shots off in the distance. Seconds later, we make out the faint sound of cheers. Another hunter connects. We can't avoid the urge to see their prize, so we head toward the sounds.
As we near the other group, a single grouse rises at Tawney's feet. One shot from his over-and-under puts the bird on the ground. I take a few steps toward him only to be surprised by another grouse that seems to rise up out of the earth.
I'm stunned at their ability to hide in what appears to be coverless ground. Despite the initial surprise, I snap the Browning to my shoulder, pick up the straight-away bird and squeeze the trigger. It folds in a puff of feathers.
Two days prior, I woke at 3 a.m. to catch a 7 a.m. flight. I flew from Richmond to Newark to Denver to Great Falls, Montana. I picked up a rental car and drove more than three hours on Highway 2, known as the Hi-Line, to a barbecue joint in Malta, Montana. Another hour down dusty gravel roads brought us to a rustic log cabin owned by American Prairie Reserve.
And now here I am, standing with one of the grandest prizes in upland hunting in my hand, gazing at the vast Montana landscape around me. I hold the heavy bird in my hand and study the intricate feather patterns that hide it from hawks, coyotes and other predators, the soot-black belly and the feathered, chicken-sized feet. We pose for a few photos before working our way through more sage.
There's more than sage grouse out here, of course. After a brief rest at our cabin, we take off on foot through the knee-high blond grass that sweeps up the distant slopes all around us. The grass is good sharptail habitat and the draws and ditches filled with snowberry, wild roses and an assortment of greens are ideal Hungarian partridge habitat.
Even better, the land is owned by APR. Most all of their holdings are under Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' Block Management Program, an 8 million-acre lease program that gives hunters free access to quality private land. Millions more acres in this region fall under federal ownership and are open to hunting, as well. A hunter and his dogs could spend a lifetime chasing birds in eastern Montana and never see the same country again.
It doesn't take long to put up birds. A trio of sharpies rises far off to my right, offering a long shot to one of the hunters in our group. More walking produces more singles that rise well within range. We capitalize on some and miss a few more while watching the dogs bound through the knee-high grass that surrounds us. We even bust a massive covey of partridge.
I end the trip with a hun, enough sharpies to satisfy my upland craving and the biggest upland prize in Montana â€“ a sage grouse. It's hard to justify the time, expense and effort for a single bird, but a sage grouse isn't just any bird. To an upland hunter, sage grouse define a true western experience, and no other upland bird speaks of freedom more than sage grouse.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service plans to revisit the birds in five years. If conservation measures aren't working, there's a good chance the iconic western bird will be placed on the Endangered Species List. In other words, if you want to hunt for your own trophy, go now.
But before you turn the dogs loose and take off across the western prairie, take a minute to snap off a stalk of sage and take in the odor.