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Upland with Friends

It’s easy for me to get caught up in this solo pursuit. The rhythm of walking to the horizon with shotgun in hand appeals to my obsessive nature. Shut out the world and follow the dogs. Simple. Quiet. Rewarding.

But decades ago I came to be a bird hunter because of friends sharing their experience afield. I can’t say that upland hunting saved me, rather that it saves everyone around me from the monster I would become without it.

A trip to Big Sky Country reunited me with the group that helped seed Ultimate Upland. There’s a comfort in hunting with cherished friends. But the six year gap between hunts has also been unsettling.

Frequent exposure allows changes to creep up, go unnoticed. But these six years apart the contrast is stark. Time has caught my bird hunting mentors. Reflexes have been dulled. Endurance worn. It has slowed them. And they aren’t accepting these changes gracefully.

If it’s happening to my upland heroes, then it must be happening to me. I wonder if I’m on the rise or fading. Are my best days of bird hunting still ahead?

But then there are moments: a friend’s first Sharptail over my dog, an old gunzel dropping a double, campfire stories that provoke moronic laughter.

The hell with mortality.

Let’s just hunt so often we never notice the creep consuming us as we disappear over the horizon.

 

 

Aerial Upland Habitat and Predator Observation

Stopped to visit our friends at Flatwillow Creek Outfitters in Montana. It’s great to see ranchers and guides taking such an interest in habitat and upland birds. This is part of the big difference when the outfitter  is a family-run business.

This is the best inflight conversation I’ve had in a long time. Talking upland birds and buzzing coyotes.

So buckle your seat belts and lock your tray tables in the upright position.

Did I mention that I love my job?

 

Quest for the Sage Grouse

Three Llewellin setters hunting together for the first time are on point. It’s taken 9.5 miles of walking across rolling Montana sage to get this dog circus to this grand finale. Yet somehow my new hunting buddy Jory and I walk past without even noticing. I suspect his male setter Ridge has lead the discovery because he seems to be the only one with any energy left. But the ladies Sage and my Rio have crept in to back, all three dogs in a 10 yard circle confirming the inevitable.

Blame the unseasonable heat and resulting dehydration. Blame the welcome distraction of trucks now coming into view or the aching feet. Jory and I are lost in the story swap of other days afield. Something has made these pointing dogs invisible to us. Until the Sage Grouse, now sufficiently nervous from our ignorant behavior, begin vaulting to wing and Wyatt the black lab who has been heeling us out of exhaustion sees birds, taps one last energy reserve and closes to flush whatever lies in his path.

3 setters and a lab

Long shots. It’s just too early in the season to be making them. But I fire two wayward shells at the nearest and biggest grouse I can pick out. Not a single feather is cut as it puts full girth behind wing beats, comes to full speed and disappears with its friends over the horizon.

With Wyatt nipping at the tail feathers of a bird late to the flight plan, Jory draws the same result with his salvo.

And the silence that sets in after shells are spent comes from the realization that my quest that started three years ago has come to this. A blown opportunity on a bird that may have very few left. A decision by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is looming. The Sage Grouse could become the next recipient of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) label, joining a list that seems to never relinquish members.

The largest grouse species in the country has tormented me over hundreds of walking miles. Many Sharptail and other winged relatives have fallen along the journey, but the Sage Grouse has eluded all efforts.

Now to come this close, just outside good gunning distance. My shotgun feels heavy from the mixture of adrenaline and disappointment coursing through weary arms. I need to bring one of these birds to hand. I believe holding one will somehow make me understand whats happening with this species, will put it in the language of upland hunting which I understand best. I need to be a part of the history of this great bird before all that is left is history.

Luckily there are people like Tim Griffiths from Natural Resources Conservations Service and Sage Grouse Initiative Coordinator who can help frame the Sage Grouse into a broader perspective. The population has plummeted from millions to about 200,000 from the loss of intact sagebrush grasslands in 11 western states and Canada where its range has been reduced by half. Contributing factors and proposed solutions can be a gauntlet that gets complicated. There are no easy answers to put this bird back on the climb. And this is the West where ranchers and oil men carve a living from hard work; easy answers are frowned upon and rarely net real results.

There are only a handful of states where Sage Grouse can still be hunted. Most have very brief seasons, permit drawings and extremely conservative bag limits. Montana is one state with a significant population of birds that doesn’t seem to be under the same pressures, and allows hunting during the months of September and October.

But the truth is very few people actually pursue the Sage Grouse. Most hunters cite the flavor of the meat as the prime reason they won’t target them.  Hunting has never been considered a factor in the population decline. From discussions with Tim I learn that habitat fragmentation is the largest enemy of Sage Grouse. A number of studies have shown that Sage Grouse are a migratory species with journeys ranging from 10 to 250 miles. Put a few dozen oil wells or a subdivision in the midst of one of these migration corridors and the grouse will abandon the area.

Most folks who live outside of the traditional range of the Sage Grouse are unaware of the debate currently brewing out West. Much of this part of the country is basking in the red hot economy created by the oil and gas boom. And even more of it is part of a tradition of ranching and grazing on massive tracts of private property and millions of acres of federal lands. The Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) has identified 186 million acres as traditional habitat — 60% of this residing on federal land, 40% private. That’s nearly a third of the contiguous US land mass. If this amount of natural resource falls into restriction and regulation brought on by a ESA listing, you can be certain the rest of the country will feel the impact acutely.

But outside of all the gloom and doom, let’s look at the some of the things that SGI has accomplished since inception in 2010. What attracted my attention most and brought me to contact Griffiths is I recognized a new vibe in their conservation efforts. SGI is a highly targeted and science-based landscape approach to proactively conserve Sage Grouse and sustain the working rangelands that support western ranching economies. Conservation practices are designed to be win-win solutions addressing threats facing both Sage Grouse and rangelands.

Griffiths explained in detail how a custom grazing system can be implemented to the mutual benefit of rancher and wildlife alike. I’m no wildlife biologist, but I found it mind bending and contrary to so many of my preconceived notions of livestock. I have hopes that similar grazing practices will find their way into other public lands. Some other things that SGI has accomplished:

  • Conservation easements were secured on 242,000 acres to maintain large and intact working ranches in some of the highest Sage Grouse abundant core areas. These actions anticipate a 2/3 reduction in bird loss as a result.
  • Additional hiding cover increases Sage Grouse nest success by 10% within 2.1 million acres of grazing systems implemented.
  • Tripled the chance of maintaining populations by removing 200,000 acres of invasive conifer in core habitats and prevented a loss of 60% of the available forage.
  • SGI prevented 2,600 fence collisions by marking or moving 500 miles of ‘high-risk’ fence that reduced bird strikes by 83%.

No one who understands the facts and potential impacts wants to see an Endangered Species listing, all for selfish reasons of course. But in this case the selfish motives may actually work in favor of the birds. That’s why I have hope.  SGI is working with all the major concerns — ranchers, oil and gas, hunters, conservation groups and states — to find common solutions which will benefit them and wildlife. Instead of preaching from an ivory tower or regulating economic and private interests into oblivion, they are working with biologists, scientists and landowners to find real solutions with measured results. It is refreshing and a model for future conservation efforts.

There’s no doubt that the birds that just escaped Jory and I have benefited from work that SGI has headed up.

As the pack of Llewellin circle long from winged excitement, I call Wyatt back to the original location of the flush. My gun has been reloaded without thought, just muscle memory from so many days afield. I’ve learned over years of pursuit of prairie species that often a bird from a covey believes they can outsmart predators without expending the energy of flight. Just hold tight, let the melee of a dozen birds taking wing distract and divert the pursuer then let ’em pass right by.

These are the times it pays off to have a hard-headed lab that reads body language and knows your thoughts before you do. As if on cue Wyatt runs his nose into the one hold out bird.  I’ve closed the distance and wait just long enough for the bird to clear his darkness  before snapping the trigger. The grouse folds and Wyatt is upon it. I drop to both knees. The end of this journey is overwhelming and it takes my breath away. Jory is there with congratulations and a high five that returns me to my feet.

I call for Wyatt to bring up the bird, exhaustion has him taking his sweet time. I let him savor the moment too.

Jory and I hunt together multiple times on this trip to Montana and our crew of dogs eventually settle into a rhythm. Though unseasonably warm the Sharptail cannot avoid the dognado and many come to hand. But the highlight of the trip is the Sage Grouse now tucked into the corner of my cooler, quite possibly the only one I will ever shoot. Respect for the bird, respect for conservation efforts makes me question whether I will ever pull the trigger again. But the heft of the largest grouse in the country is something I hope others will get to experience in the future.

And now I owe Jory an assist on an elk pack-out because he led me to this bird. Why he still hunts 4-legged beasts when he lives in the heart of bird country with two setters is something I will never understand.

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Visit the SGI website to see some great photos and videos of Sage Grouse. And be sure to like them on Facebook to stay up to date on their efforts.

Kicking Off the 2013 Upland Season in Montana

When you are about to drive 1500 miles to hunt birds, the last thing you want to do is forget something. Rural Montana isn’t the easiest place to find gear that you left behind.

Because it’s the first hunt of the year, I try and pack over the course of a couple weeks. Sounds crazy, even to me, but it is a proven strategy. I’ll start making a pile in an unused room, garage or sometimes the dining room table. As the departure date draws nearer the pile grows in size. You never want to forget the big items: gun, shells, dogs. But it’s the little things that gnaw at you once you’re on the road: dog bowls, training collars, power cords, hunting boots, upland vest. Things you aren’t going to find in a General Store or gas station can be problematic when you’re in the middle of nowhere.

That pile of gear serves as a visual reminder of the upcoming trip and every now and then I’ll walk by it and a lightbulb will go off to add an item not yet included.

The bulk of Montana has managed to stay clear of the drought which has ravaged much of the west this summer. The other reason we decided to start the hunt in Montana this season is Sage Grouse. After years of studies the US Fish and Wildlife Service is supposed to make a ruling on whether to add Sage Grouse to the endangered species list. If that happens, the ramifications for millions of acres of federal lands considered Sage Grouse habitat could be interesting to watch.

There is no doubt that Sage Grouse numbers have been on the decline. The debate currently revolves around why the populations have dropped. Many believe it is a symptom of habitat fragmentation. Being a bird hunter, not a biologist, I don’t have the answers. I can only hope that somebody smarter than myself can come up with a solution to stabilize these birds.

I’m in Montana to find Sage Grouse on what could be the final opportunity to chase this majestic bird and hopefully bring one to hand.

Rio, the Llewellin setter, is now in her terrible twos. The hope is that she skips right past terrible and picks up where she left off last season. And our ol’ faithful black lab hunting buddy Wyatt will be plodding along this trip too. Watching a pointer and a flusher working together has become one of my true joys of fall.

Here’s some clips from the start of the hunt. Check us out on Facebook or join the Lodge to see more photos and videos from afield.