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OUTDOOR REPORT: A long walk in the sagebrush sea

Tribune columnist Mark Davis poses with Gage, a pointing Lab owned by Karl Bear, and his first ever sage grouse during the season last month. Tribune columnist Mark Davis poses with Gage, a pointing Lab owned by Karl Bear, and his first ever sage grouse during the season last month. Photo courtesy Karl Bear

Snug in a warm bed during my first week in Wyoming, I woke to an early call.

“I’m here. Are you close?” asked Destin Harrell, a BLM biologist in the Cody field office.

I wasn’t. Until that moment I was snug in my bed.

“I’ll be there soon,” I said.

In a panic, I must have looked and sounded like a mad man in a dash to get out the door. Harrell was kind enough to offer to escort me to a sage grouse lek and I had overslept. Not a great way to start a new job, my run through the house collecting cameras and my drive through the dark, west on 14-A, was filled with quite a few naughty words and much remorse. I’m usually the guy who shows up early and has to make the calls to find the tardy.

Harrell was kind enough to forgive me and we proceeded to the lek. As the sun appeared over the McCullough Peaks, warm rays of yellow caught the sharply pointed tails of grouse already engrossed in their mating ritual. It probably seemed like a little much as my shutter was overworked for the first 10 minutes of sunrise. There are few things I love more than capturing a new bird species on film. The mating ritual of the sage grouse is absolutely enchanting and our arrival, no thanks to my alarm, was timed perfectly.

Five months later I received another invitation to search for sage grouse. This time Karl Bear, manager of the Diamond Wing Upland Game Birds farm, wanted to go hunting. I told him I’d bring my camera and he was insistent that I come prepared to hunt.

“Bring your gun. I think I can get you on some birds,” Bear said.

Having written several stories about the complicated efforts of sage grouse conservation, I was conflicted about hunting the imperiled species. To many, hunting them makes little sense as the population of the beautiful bird plummets.

For most of the Cowboy State, the season to hunt sage grouse lasts for two weeks. Some areas in the northeast part of the state only get a three-day hunt. Tom Christiansen, sage grouse program coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish department, explained that the department regulates the limited hunts, most with two bird bag limits, to ensure the hunts won’t harm the populations.

“As long as we carefully manage the species we can support a limited harvest,” Christiansen said.

Christiansen has spent more than three decades studying the birds. He explained to me that, not only is there no biological reason to NOT hunt sage grouse, hunters are an important part of the effort to keep the birds off the endangered species list.

“If we don’t have hunters as a constituent, we’ve lost one of our best allies in the conservation effort,” he said.

I do love to hunt so I left my cameras at home and made sure I was up early for my predawn meeting with Bear. Unfortunately, I got lost. I attempted to call Bear several times as I tried in vain to find our meeting site on time; Bear had left his phone in his truck while preparing for the hunt. Panic set in again.

As I drove back and forth northwest of Powell, I saw several pheasants and doves moving in the irrigated agricultural fields. I’ve never had a problem hunting these tasty birds — especially Eurasian collared doves, which are an invasive species. Finally I was able to reach Bear by phone.

We drove to our secret hunting spot, but didn’t see any birds. So we started driving double-track trails, looking for signs of the chicken-sized birds while absorbing the bouncy ride. Eventually we saw three large males on a dried pond, drove a quarter mile up the road so we wouldn’t spook them and devised a plan to get close enough for a shot.

I slowly worked my way to the north, trying to take them by surprise, but my bumble-footed approach was detected right away by the trio. They flew about a quarter mile away and settled in some sagebrush. To my surprise, about two dozen more followed as I continued my approach. Bear was out of sight, hanging back while I chased.

I followed the flock, but before I could get within 100 yards, the birds once again were up. Bear, along with his pointing black lab named Gage, and I decided to continue to pursue them. Undeterred by tripping over just about every cactus or sagebrush in my path as I tried to keep my eye on the flock, the three of us tried our best to keep up. Then, after miles of attempts, Gage flushed a young grouse.

I lifted my trusty Remington 12-gauge and fired. A few pellets found the target but the grouse didn’t slow. I fired again and the bird folded. Gage raced to the grouse and brought it back to Bear. I was all smiles. Hitting a moving target isn’t usual for me — my wife is the best shot in the family — and I love to watch a dog work in the field.

Had we failed, it would’ve still been a fun hunt — my first in the state. I’m a food motivated hunter (apparent by my waistline) so bringing home dinner is important. But the time afield with Bear and Gage would have been just as fun had we failed. Honestly, I’m used to failing despite using a lot of shells.

Christiansen was pleased with my success and encouraged me to fill out a survey to be mailed later this year.

“We have to be more careful with the sage grouse harvest than pheasant,” he said.

Some areas of the state have wing barrels, as hunters are encouraged to donate a wing for study by the state. There are too few sage grouse in the Big Horn Basin for this practice to be helpful so the survey cards are extremely important.

The season closed Saturday and I’m already looking forward to dragging my cameras to a spring lek and the following fall hunt. But next year, I hope to make it on time.

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