Sage-grouse hunters adjusting to changes in season in Colorado

Populations of greater sage grouse across northwest Colorado have fluctuated historically. This year, one unit was closed to hunting while six other were re-opened after being closed for many years.

If you’re a sage-grouse hunter, you found some interesting changes awaiting you when the season opened Sept 10.

One long-time favorite area was closed this year, and several other areas were re-opened to hunting for the first time in many years.

Game management unit 201 in the big-sky expanses of northwest Colorado, including popular Cold Spring Mountain, was closed to protect a declining grouse population.

However, the state parks and wildlife commission approved hunting in six additional greater sage-grouse units in northwest Colorado.

The areas open to greater sage-grouse hunting this year included units 2, 3, 4, 5, 10, 11, 13, 27, 37, 181, 211, 301 and 441. Parts of 18 and 28 also were open.

The loss of 201, which also includes nearby Middle Mountain and Diamond Peak, isn’t a real surprise, considering hunters have noticed for years how the sage-grouse flocks have been struggling.

Several factors, including habitat loss, competition from domestic livestock grazing and long-term drought have pushed the birds to levels where biologists didn’t feel secure in offering a season.

“Cold Spring Mountain is a tough one to figure out,” said Brad Petch, senior terrestrial biologist for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Northwest Region.

Sage-grouse units are evaluated based on the number of male grouse counted each spring on the leks, the historic breeding grounds where males dance to attract females.

Biologists use a three-year average of the number of males to estimate overall populations levels, and when that three-year average falls below 100, the units are closed.

Cold Spring Mountain, which is tucked into the farthest corner of northwest Colorado and whose slopes fall west into Utah and north nearly to the Wyoming border, inexplicably has been hovering right around the 100-male average for several years, Patch said.

“It’s really productive country, which makes this a little bit perplexing,” he said. “The counting conditions this spring were pretty tough but the populations have been down-trending for a couple of years.

“The reason the (lek) count dropped was unclear but this was the right decision.”

What makes it even harder to figure out, Petch said, was that nearby Blue Mountain, a few miles south and east of Cold Spring, hasn’t dropped below the threshold although the populations there also are declining.

“It’s close,” Petch said. “One thing we’ve known is that the sage-grouse populations across the whole northwest corner have fluctuated over the last 10 to 12 years.”

There were a few years in the early part of the decade where sage-grouse numbers were up but since then the annual counts have noted fewer and fewer birds, Petch said.

“We may be approaching the bottom end of that fluctuation and we may see populations come up again,” he said. “Certainly in good (moisture) years such as this the improving range conditions will help us recover over time.”

Better habitat conditions are reflected with the opening of several units that had been close to or over the minimum number of males but for various reasons weren’t open to hunting.

Some of that had to do with the disappearance of grouse hunters, which means there really wasn’t enough hunting pressure to necessitate opening additional units.

In the days when sage-grouse populations were at their height, the opening day of sage-grouse season nearly was as popular as the opening day of elk season.


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