When you are entertaining the idea of hunting the second largest upland game bird that resides in some of the harshest terrain in our country, you had better be prepared.
And prepared we were.
My bird hunting partner of more than twenty years, Les Jundy, from Los Angeles, who is the best desert bird hunter I have ever met, (maybe aside from me of course) and I, from Grass Valley, California, had been preparing for this hunt for over two and a half years. Nevada’s Department of Wildlife (NDOW) holds two 2-day hunts in September. Interested participants must fill out forms that are entered into a drawing, in hopes of being one of 150 hunters to venture out into the state’s high plateaus.
The Sheldon hunt was open for two weekends, Sept. 18-19 and Sept. 25-26. It is a permitted hunt, with 75 permits awarded by random draw available for each hunt by reservation only. The hunt is open to residents and nonresidents of Nevada. The daily limit is two and the possession limit is four for sage grouse. Both residents and nonresidents must have an upland game stamp and either a hunting license or a short term permit to hunt, while hunting upland game in Nevada.
Les and I had our names selected to hunt the second weekend of the season. It was not the opening weekend like we had really hoped, but we were excited none the less. We had entered the drawing in 2009 but we were not one of the 150 of 488 fortunate parties.
“The Sheldon Sage-Grouse Hunt is a popular hunt with only 75 reservations available for an early and late season. Last year the Department received 389 applications for the 150 available reservations,” said NDOW game biologist Shawn Espinosa.
NDOW provides each of the hunters with a one page questionnaire to be filled out and returned. In addition, if a bird is harvested they are also required to clip a wing and place it in an envelope (that is provided at the entrance to the Reserve) as part of a long-term study of the state's sage-grouse populations.
"We are interested in collecting data from wings collected during the two 2-day seasons," said Espinosa. "This information provides us with recruitment and nest success data. In addition, we also were able to collect a substantial amount of blood samples last year that were submitted to the USGS Wildlife Health Center. These samples were used to analyze the effects of west Nile virus in 2009. From 2005-2009 the Nevada Department of Wildlife has collected and average of 122 wings annually.”
We loaded our bird dogs, Les’s dog Boss, a two year old Brittany, who has many hunts under his collar and Dyson, my two year old Vizsla-Weimaraner mix, and gear into my truck in Fernley, Nevada and headed to the expansive sage filled desolate-northwestern corner of the state where we entered the Sheldon National Refuge which is near the Nevada-Oregon border.
The nearest services could be found at the Nevada-Oregon-border in the small town of Denio, Nevada, population of 54. We topped off the gas tank, filled the coolers with ice and proceeded to leave cellular service range. We drove 81 miles to our camp, Little Catnip Spring.
One might think that finding a bird that is almost five pounds with a wing span of three feet would be an easy task, but the Refuge is over 900 square miles which is twice as large as New York City. So where does one start? Near the water of course. Birds will travel to water once in the morning and then again at night.
This was not our first time in the Refuge. Les and I scouted the area in July, where we located a few grouse near and around Catnip Reservoir and the springs that fed it. On a side note; Catnip Reservoir holds Lahontan Cutthroat trout and it is open to fishing on a catch and release basis.
As Les and I entered the Reserve, we saw wild horses and donkeys that were left to roam free after Nevada‘s gold and silver rush of the mid-to-late 1800s. We also saw antelope, coyotes, black-tail deer and a golden eagle soaring in the afternoon breeze.
One of the many wild horses that are thriving on the Refuge.
We arrived at camp mid-day Thursday after the 7 hour car ride from Fernley where we met and spent the night. We set up camp and proceeded to scout Thursday evening and then again all day Friday. The only upland game birds we saw were two coveys of valley quail that were found around water.
Campsite at Little Catnip Springs with Catnip Reservoir in background.
We organized our gear for the next morning and then sat around the campfire feeling dejected and asking ourselves, “What are we doing here?” It was the night before our permitted two day hunt was to commence when Les stated, “We would do a lot better if we were hunting deer or antelope.” After a dinner of steak and soup, the sun had perished for the day and its light was fading fast, four sage grouse landed just below us on the water. We began to feel much better about our mission.
We got up well before dawn. Les made eggs, sausage and potatoes for the both of us while I made coffee. We have learned that you must eat a hearty breakfast because you may not be back to camp for many hours and miles of walking. We then headed out into the vast 6,000 foot elevated countryside looking for birds that can tip the scales at close to 5 pounds and sport a 3-foot wingspan.
We did flush two of the birds we saw the night before, but no shots we taken as they were well out of range for our improved cylinder barrels. I would say they fly quick, not fast, they do however flush explosively out of cover, much like a pheasant. Since the sage grouse inhabit low lying sage plants not tall corn fields like the pheasant, they do not fly up and then out like a pheasant, they just fly out. Our opening morning was windy, but you would have never known by the way the two birds flew straight into the wind with very little trouble. I watched them fly for the better part of a half mile when they disappeared over the ridge line. The birds best defense to the coyote (its biggest predator) is to fly out of site and land on top of a sage-filled mesa that could be as large as eight miles by 40 miles. Even if the grouse did land in site, any predator including us would have to travel a mile or so and then try to find the bird without any distinguishing land markings on the landscape, such as trees. It is nearly impossible.
Les and I both found it interesting that this particular species of grouse will not roost (they roost in the lava-rim rocks), eat ( they eat in open sage fields filled with only the smaller bushes), drink ( in wide ravines) or travel in tight canyons. The sage grouse needs room to see the oncoming predator as well as space to take flight.
Dyson and I stayed with the rim rocks as Les and Boss moved out into the open plateau. Les and Boss were utilizing the wind while Dyson and I were looking for birds that may have stayed on the roost longer than most other upland species do.
I walked above the rim rocks, by staying on top I would have a better change at a shot if a bird were to flush. Dyson on the other hand was below me working within the jagged boulders, I could not see him so I had to be ready to react at all times.
After a mile or so, my faithful companion made a long loop toward the water with the wind at his back so I was thinking that he needed a drink. Therefore, I did not call him back. He did not make it to the water. Instead he made a quick left turn with his nose in the air, he was using the westerly-wind that was starting to become hot and very dry. He followed a wide canyon, for a few hundred yards, that has a small spring, back to the rim rocks. He was acting birdie, his tail was moving very quickly, while he moved slowly smelling every bush, just below me. I stood there with my finger on the guns safety, my heart beating faster and my eyes wide with anticipation. My quarry appeared out of nowhere and then disappeared into the green blanket of sage, and there before me was Dyson staunch on point. I proceeded to steady my mixed breed pointer, with a whoa command. He stood there as hard as the rocks for which we had spent the entire morning traipsing. I moved toward the spot where Dyson was telling me I would find a bird. I looked and looked, but I did not see anything. So I called Dyson up, he proceeded to lock up again, this time on a small sage bush with two bowling ball sized lava rocks around it, and other than the two inch tall cheat grass, the bush was out in the open. Again I could not see anything in the location where Dyson was so sure that birds were holding and I was less than 10 yards away. I lifted my feet, that no longer felt like a ton of bricks for the intense morning of walking, towards the marked location when not one but two birds burst into the air. This was my first hunt for the sage grouse, so my first two shots moved ahead of the bird I selected. The sage grouse flies a bit slower than they appear to. I did catch a large male on the third pull of the trigger of my Remington 1100, knocking down my first sage grouse at 40 paces. Dyson proceeded to bound over every obstacle en-route to retrieve the bird. Once he brought it back to me, I could not believe how big and beautiful that bird was. I stood there in the 15 to 20 mile per hour wind thinking how lucky I was to see one, let alone get one. I know that I wouldn’t have had this opportunity without Dyson, he performed like a true champion.
These two birds were a mile or so from where we saw the two bird flush earlier in the morning and I suspect they were from the covey of four we saw the night before.
Sage grouse blending into the grass.
Les came over to see my bird. We then proceeded to walked along the rim rocks together with one of us positioned above the protruding lava rocks and the other below as we continued our jaunt toward Catnip Reservoir, which was another four miles, it resulted in seeing nothing.
Once the sun peaked high in the sky it became very hot topping 90 degrees, we headed back to camp. We sat near the fire-ring in our camp chairs eating cans of tuna fish, fully exposed to the sun. We discussed the morning hunt and concluded that the area only held four birds and one of them was in my game pouch. At this point the were feeling much like we both had the night before, dejected. I had a bird at that point so I was content to just sit there. “What are we going to do?” I asked Les. He had taught me a lot over the years and I always appreciate his willingness to share his knowledge. I have learned that one of his favorite strategies is to “hunt around water.” If you're unfamiliar with the area, you might walk for miles and never find water-or a grouse.
So the veteran bird hunter and I studied the topographical maps and came up with a plan to walk the water shed from Little Catnip Springs down to the Reservoir which was 3.2 miles and another 3.2 miles back. When the sun started to move lower in the sky we filled our hydration packs with water, tightened our boots, woke up the dogs who spent the afternoon sleeping under the truck, and started out down the hill. Les had also taught me not to start the hunt by walking downhill, because you will have to walk back up when you are fatigued. But since we were camped above the drainage, there was only one way to go and that was down.
The walk to the reservoir was long and hot, not to mention we did not see a bird, but on the bright side there was water all the way down so I did not have to share my water with Dyson like I did during the morning hunt. Once we arrived at the bottom of the drainage, I turned around and looked back at where we began and felt spent. I needed to re-fuel and sat down for a few minutes to eat a granola bar and to get a drink of water. We turned around and marched back up the 400 foot elevation change we just gave up.
By the time we were half a mile from camp and again not seeing a bird, the sun was going behind the distant ridge line, the temperature was starting to drop quickly. Les and I simultaneously said “Birds.” Two grouse were flying straight at us, we held our ground and did not move. We had discussed earlier that afternoon that Les would take the first shot since I had already bagged one. He shot and missed a 30 yard passing shot. These birds had a tail wind and were in full flight. I then had the green light to attempt to fill my daily bag limit. I squeezed the trigger and my Remington No. 6 shot was sent flying through the air and hit the lead bird which turned out to be a male, I had my limit so I un-loaded my gun. Dyson once again did a great job finding the downed bird, all-the-while Les fired a second time with his 20-gauge Remington 1100 dropping the first grouse of his life, which was also a male. His dog Boss also did his job finding his bird. When Boss brought Les his grouse, he looked like a kid in a candy store, smiling from ear to ear.
We were very proud of our accomplishments of the day so with the light dwindling we headed back to camp and when we did, a covey of eight grouse flew straight at us. I yelled “Les, birds!” He fired and his limit was filled; this time he caught a female ( Adult females are mottled grey-brown with a light brown throat and dark belly). Boss was running along the ridge off to our right, so Dyson moved in and pointed the downed bird near the running water and the bottom of the expansive ravine. I was so proud of my bird dog. With any upland bird hunt, you need a dog, but when hunting sage grouse you absolutely must have a dog. They sit very tight and the color of its feathers blend into the foliage, so once you down a bird, without a dog you would never find it.
Les Jundy with Boss (left), Dyson and his limit of sage grouse.
These birds are unique within the grouse species, in that they have no muscular gizzards. They will not be found feeding in areas with larger grains or seeds. Instead, you will find them feeding mostly on sagebrush, as well as bugs. For that reason, a mature bird tastes like a sagebrush bush. I can personally tell you that this is true. We were limited in what we could do with our opening day birds, since we were camping 81 miles from the nearest kitchen. We removed the meat from the bones and put it in foil with butter and garlic. If the combination of butter and garlic can turn a snail into a high priced delicacy then it should work well for this application. After one bite I realized that it was not as bad as I thought it was going to be. If you like duck, this is your fare.
As instructed we clipped a wing off of each bird and place them into the envelopes that were provided by NDOW.
We could have hunted as permitted the following day but we agreed to pack up camp as both of us were physically beat up and were to drive home the following morning.
NDOW had placed a 55 gallon drum at the entrance to the Sheldon National Refuge, where we were to leave our envelopes. At mid-day on Sunday there were seven other envelopes with one wing in each. As I saw the Refuge sign in my rear-view mirror, I was very proud to know that Les and I were the only hunters at that point to harvest our limit. We talked about the hunt on our drive back to Fernley. While we both felt that luck played a large part in our success, it was the preparation for the hunt, scouting for three days in 100 degree heat in July, as well as studying the Refuge maps leading up to the event that led to our over-all success.
The Sage Grouse and its Future
The Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) is the largest grouse in North America, behind the wild turkey, it is known as the Greater Sage-Grouse. Its range is sagebrush country in the western United States. The bird has a long, pointed tail and legs with feathers to the toes. This adult male has a yellow patch over the eye, grayish on top with a white breast, a dark brown throat and a black belly; two yellowish sacs on the neck are inflated during courtship display. The courtship occurs in an area that is known as a Lek. A Lek is an assembly area where animals carry on and display courtship behavior. The male sage grouse will move into a grassy area in early summer looking to attract a female with his courtship dance.
The sage grouse numbers are declining in some areas, mostly due to a loss of sagebrush, not due to hunting. This Western plant has been eradicated in some areas due to land development and because of the practice of planting grass to increase livestock forage as well as long-term droughts. With the decline of habitat there has been a decline in the bird population.
Although the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced in March that it would place greater sage-grouse on the list of “candidate species” across its range in the 11 western states and two provinces, Espinosa reports that sage-grouse populations in the Sheldon NWR do support a hunt season.
Biologists have stated that residential building, as well as energy development have caused the sage grouse population in the United States to decline from 16 million 100 years ago to 200,000 today. The fossil fuel industry, which calls for expansion into untapped lands throughout the West, has been the primary opponent to federal endangered species protection for the bird. This species is in decline due to loss of habitat, as well as the bird's range has been reduced drastically and can not be found in British Columbia, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico where they once flourished.
Though the sage grouse as a whole is not considered endangered by the IUCN, (International Union for Conservation of Nature, an organization that helps the world find pragmatic solutions to the most pressing environment and development challenges), many local populations may be in serious danger of extinction.
In May of 2000, the Canadian Species at Risk Act listed the sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus phaios), formerly found in British Columbia, as being non-existent in Canada. The presence of sub-fossil bones found at Conkling Cave and Shelter Cave in southern New Mexico exhibits that the species once resided south of its current range at the end of the last ice age, leading some experts to speculate that the species could become more vulnerable as global climate change increases the humidity in semi-arid regions.
Controversy surrounds the Sage Grouse
The LA Times reported on March 05, 2010, from Washington — The Interior Department declared Friday that an iconic Western bird deserves federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, but declined to offer that protection immediately -- a split decision that will allow oil and gas drilling to continue across large swaths of the mountainous West.
The department issued a so-called "warranted but precluded" designation for the greater sage grouse, meaning that the bird merits protection but won't receive it for now because other species are a higher priority.
The decision is likely to anger environmentalists who sued the Bush administration for refusing to declare the bird endangered.
It could buoy oil and gas companies -- and Republican lawmakers from the West -- who have warned that such a declaration would freeze drilling in areas of Wyoming and other states that are also sage grouse habitat.
For practical purposes, the ruling leaves sage grouse protection largely in the hands of states.
"The sage grouse's decline reflects the extent to which open land in the West has been developed in the last century," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in an issued statement.
"This development has provided important benefits, but we must find common-sense ways of protecting, restoring and reconnecting the Western lands that are most important to the species' survival while responsibly developing much-needed energy resources," Salazar said. "Voluntary conservation agreements, federal financial and technical assistance and other partnership incentives can play a key role in this effort."
Sage grouse have dwindled to about half of their historic range due to habitat destruction, and some scientists warn that the birds could disappear within the next 30 to 100 years.
Many news sources have reported that while in the United States, the species was and still is a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act, the George W. Bush Administration, then-deputy secretary of Fish and Wildlife and Parks Julie A. MacDonald ruled that the sage grouse did not need protection. In December 2007, following MacDonald's abrupt resignation and an internal investigation, a court in Iowa overturned her decision, citing the "inexcusable conduct of one of its own executives...who was neither a scientist nor a sage grouse expert." According to the court's ruling, MacDonald had a "well-documented history of intervening in the listing process."
You may ask yourself, why does Nevada allow hunting of this troubled upland bird? It is because for four days in September, 150 hunters pay NDOW for licenses and spend money in the state traveling to and from the Refuge, as well as act as field agents for NDOW and its biologists. It is a net positive for the states wildlife division, as well as its business owners.
The Sage-grouse lek count data collected from the Sheldon NWR has shown an increasing trend from 1999-2009, NDOW reports. “We are very concerned with sage-grouse populations in general and if we determined that sage-grouse hunting was having a detrimental or additive impact on that particular sage-grouse population, we would recommend closing the season as we have for many other hunt units in the state.” Espinoza said on NDOW‘s web site.
NDOW protects, restores and manages fish and wildlife, and promotes fishing, hunting, and boating safety. NDOW’s wildlife and habitat conservation efforts are primarily funded by sportsmen’s licenses and conservation fees and a federal surcharge on hunting and fishing gear.
Antelope feeding in one of many sage filled expansive mesas on the Sheldon Nation Wildlife Refuge.
Les and I agreed that we would not return to this incredible part of our country, but we encourage others to do so, to hunt this magnificently beautiful bird. We had our “once in a lifetime” sage grouse hunt, that provided us with our one-day limit…we have been there and done that, not to mention the travel time and expense for us Californians. If I do decide to return someday, it would be in the early summer to see the Sage Grouse’s courtship dance on the Lek.
Tell someone exactly where you are going and do not deviate from the plan
5 gallon gas can (full)
Turn off car’s interior light
Topographical Maps or GPS
Guns (2) and shot shells per hunter
Canned food (tuna and beans)
Dog food and water bowls
A half gallon of water per person, per day
Boots (2 pairs)
Clothes of choice- include gloves and a sock cap
I have video clips of the hunt.