Hunt Gather Talk: Sage Grouse

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Art for sage grouse podcast

In this episode of the podcast, I talk with Ed Arnett of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership all about sage grouse, an important, yet declining bird, that is an icon of the American West.

Every episode of Hunt Gather Talk digs deep into the life, habits, hunting, lore, myth and of course prepping and cooking of a particular animal. Expect episodes on pheasants, rabbits, every species of quail, every species of grouse, wild turkeys, rails, woodcock, pigeons and doves, and huns. Thanks go out to Filson and Hunt to Eat for sponsoring the show!

Ed and I are avid sage grouse hunters, and we discuss what that means if you are to be ethical and respectful of the species. Short version: You don’t fill your freezer with these birds. It’s a ceremonial thing. We talk about conservation, what can be done to help the species, it’s biology, habits and of course, how to hunt them and cook them.

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Transcript

As a service to those with hearing issues, or for anyone who would rather read our conversation than hear it, here is the transcript of the show. Enjoy!

Hank Shaw: Hey everybody. Welcome back to the Hunt Gather Talk podcast, sponsored by Filson and Hunt to Eat. I am your host, Hank Shaw. And this week we’re going to be talking about sage-grouse. Yup, sage-grouse. They are the largest grouse in North America, and they are the second largest upland game bird after the turkey. They’re also a bird that is in significant decline. So today’s episode, I’ll be talking with Ed Arnett. He is a inveterate bird hunter and biologist about the conservation issues that are surrounding the sage-grouse. More than any other upland game birds, sage-grouse are a bird that we need to help actively. It’s not a species that you can just hunt every year and not give it any thought about it, because if we are going to continue to be able to chase hunt and yes eat the sage-grouse, everyone who hunts them should do their part to help the species as a whole.

So we’re going to talk about that. We’re going to talk about straight up hunting, dogs, habits, biology, conservation, you name it. So here we go. Ed Arnett, welcome to the Hunt Gather Talk podcast. I am super stoked to have you on. You and I have chased chickens before and we’ve never hunted sage hens and that is the topic of today’s conversation. But you have another hat other than prairie chicken chaser. You work at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership among other things. And you have quite the background in conservation of lots of things, not just sage-grouse, but you happen to be working on sage-grouse conservation at the moment. And I’d love to have you go through some of the conservation efforts, but we’re going to talk all things sage hen today. And let’s start by telling everybody a little bit about yourself and your background and how you got to what are you doing right now.

Ed Arnett: Well, first off, thanks Hank. It’s great to hear your voice and wish we could have been face to face, but we’ll do it again in the field one of these days. So great to be on with you. I’m a 30 year veteran wildlife biologist, been doing this quite a while and joined the TRCP originally as our director of energy programs back in 2012 and then morphed into our chief scientist. So I basically provide technical support and guidance from a science perspective and liaise that science into policy. And I’ve been working with sage-grouse and sage-grouse conservation in the policy and conservation planning framework, not so much on a research side of things, although I’m very familiar with the science.

I’ve been doing that since I joined the organization and was heavily involved with some of the conservation planning that led up to the decision in 2015, which I’m sure we’ll talk about, not warranted and kind of where we are today. So yeah, a long history of conservation and wildlife research. And now in the latter years of my career doing that interface of science and policies, which has been very intriguing, different kind of wildlife.

Hank Shaw: Seriously. Having covered Congress in my past too, I-

Ed Arnett: Yeah. You’re a political reporter. Yep.

Hank Shaw: Do you spend most of your time working with federal governments or state governments or both?

Ed Arnett: Both. We work primarily at the federal level, but we work pretty extensively at the state level as it relates to broader policies like sage-grouse that transcend federal and state ownership as well as private sector. So yeah, and we work on specific state policies as they relate to some breaths like migration corridors or policy for example, which extends onto federal state and private as well.

Hank Shaw: I think let’s start with kind of what’s the deal with sage-grouse? So I mean, if you’ve talked to hunters and people on the West and people who are not in the West, there’s this kind of more than any other grouse, I think you get a sense of people on the East especially like oh, they’re endangered, how dare you hunt them? Then you get sense of people in the Mountain West be like, “Well, they’re everywhere. What’s the deal?” So they’re an odd bird in the sense that they’re an odd bird for a lot of reasons, but they’re an odd bird in the sense that of the things we hunt especially in the upland world, they occupy a specific place that I don’t think any other grouse with the exception of maybe the lesser prairie chicken, which you can no longer hunt. I mean, if you’ve been hunting upland long enough, you remember that the lesser prairie chicken kind of shut down in I think it was 2014.

Ed Arnett: I don’t remember exactly. I’ve actually shot a few.

Hank Shaw: Yeah. My friend Jim Millensifer who was on this podcast as well, he lives in Kansas and he had the opportunity to get one or two. And that’s the thing that’s so … we’ll get into the to get one or two kind of attitude in a bit, but so explain to someone who is listening to this who knows a little bit oh well, there’s the sage-grouse thing and I see it in the news every now and again, why are they different from all the other grouse in terms of their predicament in terms of habitat?

Ed Arnett: Sure. Let’s just start with the animal itself. It’s the second largest upland game bird, second only to the wild turkey and it’s the largest grouse. It’s a native, I would lump it into that prairie grouse category. It’s a native Western prairie grouse species, but it’s an obligate of the sagebrush ecosystem and this is really key. They cannot live without sagebrush. That’s what it means to be an obligate as opposed to an associate where a species associates with a habitat type, but it can live in other situations. They are a large landscape species and all species are to some extent, depends on how you define scale, but they need really big open spaces, undisturbed tracks of land, mostly undisturbed, and it has to have sagebrush in it. It’s just that simple. So those are some unique things about the sage-grouse and they’re native only to North America Western states. They used to occupy 14 states, now we’re down to 11 and we’re talking fringe states like Nebraska, Arizona, New Mexico, formerly had them in their sagebrush environments.

Hank Shaw: California too.

Ed Arnett: Well, California still has them. Yeah.

Hank Shaw: Right. They shut the hunting seasons down.

Ed Arnett: They shut the hunting season down. Yeah. And they’ve really become a trophy bird. This was a … Look, the numbers like bison or any other critter back before the turn of the century in the mid 1800s, yes, there were likely millions of them, how many millions? Anybody’s guess, but there were a boatload more than we have now. And they have declined precipitously. They’ve lost over half, right around half of their overall range and the quality of some of that habitat has really deteriorated. And the numbers have been varying, the estimates vary between two to 500,000 and it fluctuates like all game birds. Those numbers go up and down, but they really have a declined precipitously in population and have continued to do so since about 1965.

Estimates are roughly about a 2% decline per year based on lek counts. And those are the counts that biologists do at their breeding grounds, where they go very religiously year after year with high fidelity. So you know you’re going to go see some birds there usually or at least until that lek blinks out, you can reliably count the birds. And since 1965 in those counts, it’s been going down, down, down. And what you got or what things you’ll have to remember is not what you see in any one year, it’s what you see over time. So I hear that a lot myself particularly Westerners that are used to riding around the sage-grouse country and seeing them, they don’t see what a problem might be, but the longterm trend is down.

Hank Shaw: So one of the things that I from a hunter’s perspective and a cook’s perspective have noticed, you talk about it then being a sagebrush obligate. Well, what’s particularly fascinating about these birds is they lack a gizzard. They don’t have a gizzard in the traditional sense. And it’s because they pretty much almost exclusively just eat young sagebrush leaves and so they’ve got this almost like a fermentation chamber like a cow in. And it’s if open up what looks like the gizzard in a sage hen, it’s full of fermenting sagebrush leaves. And then if you open up the crop, it’s full of sagebrush leaves and it’s really fascinating because the first time I hunted them, I had no idea that that was the case. And I was like, “All right, [inaudible 00:09:10] with a sage-grouse gizzard, lo and behold, it doesn’t really actually have gizzard.”

So yeah, I mean, I have read some food studies of this bird and they do eat other things besides sagebrush, but depending on the time of year, it can be 100% or it can be 50% is all sagebrush. And so without that, they can’t eat. So explain to people about the … because this is the thing. So like a ruffed grouse or a woodcock can live in fragmented habitat as long as the fragments are reasonably big. They’re not real wanderers. What’s the big deal about the habitat loss since 1965? What’s changed?

Ed Arnett: Can I come back to the gizzard thing real fast?

Hank Shaw: Yeah.

Ed Arnett: Because there’s an interesting thing about that physiologically. So sagebrush produces terpenoids, which is kind of an anti herbivory mechanism. And some species can handle it. Yeah, don’t exactly. But if you think about it, the way those digestive enzymes ferment the leaves, they excrete part of the leaf or the skeleton of the leaf which has a lot of the terpenoids in it. So if they had a gizzard, a traditional gizzard where they ground them up, it would release more of those terpenes. So they evolved in the system, so they evolved to eat that plant. And you’re absolutely right. In the winter, it’s 100% sagebrush and then through the year, it’s still 30 to 50% at any given time. So there’s some unique physiology there in how they evolved and why they don’t need a gizzard in the first place like every other bird does.

Hank Shaw: Right. They’re the only grouse with no gizzard.

Ed Arnett: That’s right. The species, it’s just the research has shown that when you start impacting the habitat, they’re just very sensitive to the habitat loss and fragmentation, and we can get into degradation and kind of what that means a little later, but just the sheer loss of habitat from infrastructure or a fire which isn’t always permanent of course, but when they lose that habitat, it just, there’s a breaking point where they start to decline. And they seem to be far more sensitive than things like pheasants, which actually like a more heterogeneous habitat with more disturbance and variation in the landscape and sage-grouse are a little different. So they’re just very sensitive to disturbance thresholds. And those have been fairly well defined in the science for energy development and those kinds of things and how they avoid structure and infrastructure and noise and those kinds of things. They’re just more sensitive to that.

Hank Shaw: So they hate structure. I understand, because their chief enemy is a big, is like a goshawk or something, right?

Ed Arnett: No golden eagles and hawks and probably not goshawks, but Marsh harriers, Northern harriers, red-tail hawks, ferruginous hawks, those golden eagles for sure and prairie falcons too will take them. But yes, raptors are the key thing. And that’s the running hypothesis and I’ve heard this before many times of the tree avoidance hypothesis that Raptors like to roost in trees and big poles and those kinds of things. And there’s damn sure some validity to that. Sage-grouse really don’t like a lot of trees. So it’s part of that’s a predator avoidance mechanism, and that certainly is one of the big threats is conifer encroachment. So normally you’d have a, if you had a normal fire regime that runs through sagebrush and it’s enough to knock down the conifer encroachment, but not necessarily so hot or intense that it doesn’t allow for resprouting of sagebrush to come back.

So it kind of keeps that what we’d call plant successional stage in check. You’d keep that conifer encroachment from coming in, but we’ve done an awful good job of suppressing fires over the last several decades and it’s allowed for … And make no mistake, the western juniper and red cedar and other conifer species that are invading in, those are the main two that are invading in on these habitats are our native species, they’re not invasives, but they normally wouldn’t extend that far into the sagebrush. So you’re coupling not only loss from energy development and highways and urbanization and those kinds of things, but you’re also seeing habitat shifts that are also detrimental to the grouse as well. And that’s where we’ve made a lot of strides in restoration. We’ve cut a lot of juniper. And I always said if there was a market for it, a good market for it, we wouldn’t have to worry about juniper. We’d have to worry about protecting some places.

Hank Shaw: I mean, a little pro tip, when you’re out there in the sagebrush hunting and you’ve come across a juniper that’s got purple ripe berries, stop and pick a bag because that’s pretty much the same juniper that you buy in the store. It’s a slightly different species, but it’s every bit as good in cooking and juniper berries are prime seasoning for any kind of game, including sage-grouse.

Ed Arnett: I have used it based on some of your recipes actually, but I bought them in the store. I should have been picking them off the damn trees.

Hank Shaw: And it’s a great way to start. Like if you got to water your dog and everything, you’re wandering through, because I mean, we’re going to get to the hunting in a bit, but good Lord, sage-grouse hunt is an exercise in walking through … It’s called the sagebrush sea for a reason. I mean, it’s sometimes a needed lone juniper as a landmark if find your track again, because miles and miles and miles and miles of rolling stuff with nothing but little sagebrush too. Like they seem to favor the … there’s two kinds of sagebrushes, the short one and one that can be as tall as you actually.

Yeah. I tend to see them in the ones that are about knee-high.

Ed Arnett: Yep. I personally have never seen them and the science I’ve read suggests they really don’t utilize those really tall patches of sagebrush, but they’ll butt up next to them to get out of the wind and those kinds of things. It’s not that they don’t use them in some way, but you’re right. And there can be a threshold. You need at least 10, 15, 20% sage cover across the landscape. But then there’s actually a point where there’s too much sagebrush. So it kind of plateaus out and then starts to decline. Habitat use of sage starts to decline once you break over maybe 70% of canopy cover of sagebrush in the landscape. So there can be too much. And for those of us that have hunted a lot of sagebrush, you kind of come into those areas and you just work the edges and go find different places sometimes. It just doesn’t do any good to go in the middle of a ultra dense, heavy sagebrush patch.

And the other thing they really key in on particularly in the spring and early fall stage are wet meadows because they switch to … The chicks are eating insects and forbs almost immediately and they surely are eating sagebrush too, but they’re really hitting the insects and the young tender forbs early on in their lives and so those wet meadows are really important. And when we get to the hunting aspect, that’s something that’s worthy of discussing because I certainly high-grade habitats and look for those areas. And it’s also a possible conservation tool in the future if you want to reduce harvest on sage-grouse. Move the seasons later in the year and they move out of those wet meadows because they dry up and then they start using sagebrush almost exclusively. And it’s just the things that biologists are talking about if you want to reduce harvest on some of the young broods, just move it to October.

Hank Shaw: Yeah. They talk about that a lot in conservation circles, like for example, with band-tail pigeons. So the band-tail pigeons, the seasons are traditionally September, but you could run that season anywhere from August to October and it would affect which kind of pigeon you’re shooting. So I guess it’s the same with sage-grouse.

Ed Arnett: Similar just in terms of how they use the landscape. But those wet meadows really important. And it’s partly why private land can be so important because a lot of times the wet meadows and stream systems, not everywhere nor all the time. But the private land’s a very important component of sage-grouse and sagebrush conservation.

Hank Shaw: Yeah. I mean, it’s you have big giant ranches and then there’s big, huge swaths of BLM land. And so again, back on the habitat thing, what happens, what does the sage-grouse do when it’s wandering around and it sees a road? Like do sage-grouse care about roads?

Ed Arnett: It depends on the road and it depends on the traffic. If it’s an interstate, they avoid it by up to a mile or more. If it’s a two track, you’ll see them right in the middle of the two track and kind of everything in between. So it depends. And a little bit of that’s what I call the Jack in the box biology. When I hear people driving around saying, “Oh, I see I’m everywhere.” Well, they’re probably driving dirt roads, two tracks, and they do see them on those kinds of roads, but main highways or main county roads, there tends to be an avoidance factor there.

Hank Shaw: You had mentioned noise before. And so I’m imagining the mile gap on an interstate is not only a zipping car thing, but it’s a noise thing. What’s the deal with noise in sage-grouse?

Ed Arnett: So the studies that I’m aware of, and I haven’t looked at them in a little while and I can’t remember the exact decibel range, but there is a threshold of noise emitting from active oil wells that are being drilled and such during the early phase of development that’s very disruptive to sage-grouse. That’s pretty well documented by scientists there and in California actually, can’t remember where at UC Davis, I believe. They’ve done some good work there and others have as well. So there is definitely a kind of a threshold of noise that is acceptable to sage-grouse. And usually that’s associated with the early stages of development where there’s lots of noise, lots of traffic. And then when wells are producing and the traffic dies down, things change. Then it becomes more of an infrastructure relationship and the loss of habitat and those kinds of things.

Hank Shaw: So, I mean, is it just they can’t hear potential predators, is that why they avoid it?

Ed Arnett: I think that’s a fair hypothesis. I think it interferes with their breeding and the lacking behaviors and the noises that they’re emitting that time. So yeah, all of those things factor into why noise is a disturbance, especially when you evolved in a relatively noiseless system.

Hank Shaw: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, if you’re ever in true sagebrush sea, you only hear a line of birds and you hear breeze and wind. And a lot of times, at least during the hunting season, it’s not overly windy.

Ed Arnett: Correct. And it’s, it’s a peaceful place. I seek a lot of solace in sagebrush sea for that very reason.

Hank Shaw: Hey, everybody, I’d like to take this time to thank Filson for sponsoring the Hunt Gather Talk podcast. As you may know, I wear their gear in the field all the time. I love their vests. I love their outerwear, their tin cloth jacket is awesome. And as upland game bird seasons are approaching, definitely take a look at their collection of gear. A lot of it is new. A lot of it has been around for decades and all of it is super, super high quality. If you are in the market for something to wear on your upland hunt this fall, absolutely check out Filson. I can totally vouch for them from personal experience. Filson was founded in Seattle in 1897, when they started outfitting prospectors for the conduct gold rush. And ever since then, they’ve been committed to creating best in class gear for the world’s toughest people in most unforgiving conditions.

There’s all kinds of politics involved in it. And the politics that let me … I’ll try and explain the broad brush strokes to the listeners out there and you’ll correct me where I’m wrong. The best I can understand it is that because the numbers of sage hens are going down, there are two main alternatives. You can put them on the endangered species list, but if you do that, that comes with a whole bunch of other consequences that not only means you can’t hunt them anymore, but there’s a ton of consequences for private landowners of which are a big portion of where they actually live. And there’s a cascading effect in terms of other things that you can and cannot do in that region, because when you have endangered species like the official legal endangered species, there’s the very, very strict rules that you can’t accidentally kill one.

And so you have to take measures to not actually kill one. And so all parties, conservationists, most conservationists, the energy industry, the ranchers and even the local communities are like, “We don’t want to put this in the endangered species list because of all these reasons.” So we need to come up with some kind of a plan that will not force the hand of, I guess, the feds to declare them endangered. And so there’s this thing of good for the herd, good for the bird thing that you hear about this area where there has been some part of a compact that came together and you mentioned it before in about 2015 and then things fell apart. So that seems to be the brushstrokes, but you could tell me a little bit more detail of what’s going on.

Ed Arnett: No, I think that’s the good high level broad stroke. Let me give you a little history. I think it’s important for the listeners and for those that have ever heard me on another podcast talking sage-grouse. I do this often because I think it’s important because a lot of times you’ll hear things like the environmentalists are the ones that cause the sue and settle type of a situation for us on this and that’s not really true. I mean, sage-grouse are one of the most studied birds that we know of, they’ve been researched since the mid 1950s, probably earlier than that too. But back in 1994, somewhere in 1994, ’95, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, they’d formed a technical team prior to that on sage-grouse. And that technical team evaluated the potential for filing a petitioned listing from sage-grouse back in 1994, because they were concerned about that loss of habitat and declining numbers.

And what they determined back then was that the species did not warrant listing. It didn’t meet the five criteria and God don’t ask me what those are, I can’t remember them all, but it has to do with threats and all those kinds of things and how they’re being addressed, but they did not meet all five criteria. Well, back right around the turn of into the 2000s, right around 1999, 2000, there was just this cascade of petitions and legal actions. The populations were various populations were proposed for either listing as threatened or endangered.

Hank Shaw: Let me stop you for a second. So if you don’t know, if you’re listening to this and you’re like, “Populations? What are you talking about? So what that means is there’s a set group of sage-grouse or any animal like in say Northeastern California, where they’re kind of isolated. And so even though there might be, it’s like grizzlies too. So like there’s lots and lots of grizzlies in some places, but not on others. So what Ed’s talking about is in certain spots, Northeastern California being one of them, there’s only a few sage-grouse. So that lots of population that is more in threat than say, Wyoming.

Ed Arnett: Thank you for that clarification, because that is one of the subpopulations right there in California, they call it the bi-state. It used to be called the mono-basin population. It’s just a separate genetically isolated population. Washington state has its own, it was proposed as threatened and it was determined to be threatened actually. And then you’ve got kind of what we call the range wide population, which is Northeast California up to Oregon and the great basin all the way to the East, to its furthest Eastern extent across 11 states, that’s the range wide population. And then you have a totally separate subspecies called the Gunnison sage-grouse, which just occurs in Colorado and a couple of counties in Utah.

Hank Shaw: That’s a crazy. Let’s stop on that one for a second. So the Gunnison sage-grouse, so Jim Millensifer again who’s been this podcast, he’s from there. So he actually got a chance to hunt them in like I guess the seventies or early eighties before they shut it down. And so he’s like, “Yeah, man, they’re totally different in there. And it’s …” Do you know anything about what’s this like/ It’s like the Attwater’s prairie chicken, which is this weird remnant, prairie chicken, in Texas of all places. It’s like this Gunnisons grouse, it looks a little different and it’s only there. I mean, do you know what the story is for that?

Ed Arnett: Well, not as much as your prior guest probably does and other biologists that work on it. I know a little bit, enough to be dangerous. We call it the cousin of the greater with a crazy hairdo. They’re isolated in that particular part of the country and they are a totally different subspecies genetically, but they’ve got a poor population in Gunnison County and a few other areas. I think the last time I heard it was around 5,000 or so, but then there’s these little satellite populations, subpopulations if you will, that are nearby, but they’re not connected. And that’s part of the problem is there’s not this interconnect of the habitat among those different subpopulations and the subpopulations are, they’re clinging, they’re barely clinging. So-

Hank Shaw: And that’s happening with all the sage-grouse, right? So there are these pockets with even the regular sage-grouse where they’re cut off from bigger pockets.

Ed Arnett: Some, yeah. Some. Yeah, it’s a totally different situation and a precarious one because the landowners and the BLM feel like they’ve done all they can do for that particular, particularly that main population and the subpopulations are the ones that are of some concern. So they’re still in a precarious situation. They’re not quite as bad as Attwater’s. Attwater’s is clinging on life support based on a very poor, poor is not the right word, an unsuccessful captive breeding program for that species. They’ve been able to captively rear the birds, but they don’t reproduce in the wild. So that’s failure as far as I’m concerned. So back to the range wide history, we all these petitions and everything, and back in 2000 and in the early two thousands, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies in the various states really started putting together conservation strategies.

But then there was a listing, a determination in 2005 and basically the US Fish and Wildlife Service determined at that time that the species was not warranted for protections. Long story short, there was a lot going on, a little bit of shenanigans from the science side of things, some misportrayals, things went back to court and that wasn’t from the Fish and Wildlife Service, that was politicals doing that. And it goes back to the courts and they said, “No Fish and Wildlife Service, you have to go redo that, not warranted finding.” So the states were starting to take this pretty serious all along on this. They could see the writing on the wall and Wyoming developed the very first state plan in 2008 under then Governor Gurt Freudenthal. And they developed that plan prior to any other determination after that 2005 not warranted decision and then this decision to go back and take another look at it.

In 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service did determine and a lot happened between 2005 and 2010. An energy development and just a lot more habitat loss, conditions declined again and they did determine that the species was warranted, but precluded. Now, what that means is the greater sage-grouse range wide population was warranted for protections under the endangered species act, but it was precluded because there was this whole bunch of other species on the list that’s waiting to get attention. And so they listed the bird with preclusions is what it’s called. Another litany of, a flurry of legal actions and the courts decided that no, the Fish and Wildlife Service must propose a finding without preclusions by September of 2015. So that’s kind of where that sue and settle thing comes in, but it all started years ago with biologists saying, “Boy, I think we’ve got a problem here.”

And the point I’m really kind of trying to make here is that this wasn’t some radical environmental group necessarily that brought this forward. The biologists were deeply concerned and have been for decades, a long time, and for good reason for the habitat loss and those kinds of things. Bottom line, the court said, make your decision and that’s when this whole suite of groups got together, stakeholders of all kinds, ranchers industry, states, feds, private landowners, you name it, pulled together probably the broadest coalition and one of the biggest conservation planning endeavors I’ve ever seen in my career.

Hank Shaw: It’s pretty remarkable. I mean, it’s remarkable in the fact that there was a deal between oil drillers and natural gas drillers, cattle ranchers and the environmental community and the biology community. Like that’s that never happens. I deal with fisheries stuff quite a bit, and yeah, that never happens ever.

Ed Arnett: Right. Well, and as you can imagine, not everybody got what they want. And I was at the ceremony when then secretary of interior, Sally Juul said, “Well, I’ve got certain factions on both ends mad at me. So I guess we’ve found somewhere in the middle.” And that’s exactly what it was. It was a compromise that was in my opinion as a biologist and scientist and one that has reviewed this literature and looked at the plans, those 2015 plans as they were written at that time, undoubtedly would have, they would have kept sage-grouse on the landscape, probably could have stabilized the habitat loss and may have even turned the trends around into an upward cycle, but-

Hank Shaw: Which translates for everybody listening to more opportunities to chase sage-grouse.

Ed Arnett: Exactly, exactly. And I’ll tell you, and I get this question often, Hank, why do I care about sage-grouse? And I’ll never forget talking to one of the large outdoor sports outlets, one of the big magazines and the editor. I was sitting next to that person at a dinner and I said, “Are you going to write about sage-grouse?” And she said, “I don’t think so. I don’t think my readers would would really care.” And I said, “Well, let me make a couple of points for you here.” Sagebrush is the home for pronghorn antelope, and it’s also a stronghold for mule deer and elk use it to for winter range. So I think your readers would probably be interested in that.

And the fact that a once very, very abundant, widely distributed and very liberally harvested game bird is now being proposed for listing should be a concern to everybody. Everybody. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a hunter or not. And that seemed to resonate and that person wrote some things about it and took it more serious. And I think that’s, to me, that’s an important point to make is that the fact that this species is now being proposed for listing or lesser prairie chickens in the same situation, that’s a disturbing thought.

Hank Shaw: Yeah. And I think you and I have both hunted sage-grouse and chances are a reasonable percentage of the people listening to this stuff have at least chased them. And I think there is something fundamentally different about the act of hunting sage-grouse. We’ll get into mechanics in a bit, but I mean, just the putting yourself into the sagebrush sea in pursuit of a bird that has exactly the same color as the sagebrush sea, that can hide in sagebrush, that doesn’t come up past your calves yet it’s a seven pound bird. But beyond that, I mean, that’s just sort of like the part of the thrill of it is they could be anywhere. And they probably are watching you.

Ed Arnett: Exactly.

Hank Shaw: Anybody who’s ever seen a western, anybody who’s ever looked at pictures of the wild West, you don’t hunt prairie chickens in the wild West. You hunt prairie, chickens and sharp-tailed grouse in the great plains. The great plains is not the West. This is fundamentally the bird of the West of the American imagination. There is no other game bird in that part of the world that you can hunt. You can get down to around where Texas and New Mexico and Arizona are, and that’s the land of the quail and that’s also amazing. But the entire great basin, which is a thousand miles wide, this is the home of the only game bird that’s in it.

And so the beauty of it, you’ve talked about taking solace in the sagebrush sea. There’s something absolutely unbelievably unique about it in that the bird itself is yes, you want one because then you have sort of succeeded in that which you’ve set out to do, but it’s not like you want to fill your freezer with sage hens. And it’s because there’s just something special about this. And then we all realize that there’s serious issues with them, and they’re just a different bird.

Ed Arnett: And they’re more of a trophy bird now. And like when I moved to Oregon, I never did hunt I’m in Oregon, but it was a two bird per season tag lottery system. And a lot of states are going to go to that. Utah’s there and I think Idaho may be going that way. They’re proposing a lottery system now because it’s such heavy declines in that state. Would you have ever guessed that?

Hank Shaw: No, I mean, I’ve actually hunted them in [crosstalk 00:36:52].

Ed Arnett: I know you have. I know you have in Owyhee and the reality there is fire and the whole cheatgrass fire cycle. And just to kind of wrap up our discussion on the conservation planning, at least up to 2015, the interesting thing there is that what came with not just the conservation approaches for energy and grazing and some of those kinds of things, which grazing isn’t a really big and heavy factor limiting sage-grouse. It can be if done poorly, but it’s not the major limiting factor, neither is hunting either. But a fire and invasive weed strategy also followed fire in particular, a very coordinated fire strategy that came out of those 2015 plans.

And we need a better plan, a better coordinated effort for these invasive weeds because I’ll tell you, and I know you see this Hank in your neck of the woods or at least when you get up into the great basin, fire and cheatgrass are a dynamic duo that is wiping out sage-grouse and checkers and quail too for that matter. To me it can anyway, it can have a major impact on all those different species. And those invasive weeds are really a big threat and we’re still trying to get our arms wrapped around that. Since 2004, I think between 2004 or the last four years, sorry, there’s been over 9 million acres that have burned just in a few states in the great basin. And so a tremendous loss of habitat. And that’s partly why the Idaho populations have gone down so dramatically is loss from fire. And it’s all related to that annual invasive grass, cheatgrass.

Hank Shaw: Interesting. I mean, in theory, I mean, if you had an issue where you could keep the cheatgrass at Bay and replant it with the way it should be, then the declines in the opportunity to hunt sage-grouse would be very similar to the kind of declines that you get with salmon runs where, oh, well, here’s two years where we’re not going to be able to really chase salmon, but they’ll come back because … but you have to do the habitat work to have that dynamic with birds.

Ed Arnett: It’s very extensive and expensive. Cheatgrass, the problem with it and Medusa head and other invasive weeds is they can cover ground and they cover scale. And we see a lot of the great basin and it’s starting to come, it’s already here and hell my backyard’s covered with cheatgrass. I got to figure out how to get rid of it in my own damn yard. But you’re talking thousands and thousands of acres that has to be treated. It’s very expensive. So it’s a real problem. And the part of the problem people say, “Well, didn’t the sagebrush burn in the past?” Of course it did. And the cycles vary. It depends on if you’re in a higher elevation or more wet system of mountain sage versus lower elevation dryer, Wyoming, big sage.

So there’s a gradient there and along with that gradient comes the ability of the plant community to heal itself. And so at higher elevations in that mountain sage, where there are plenty of sage-grouse, you might even need a little fire here and there to open it up and help out with the density and it can handle it in terms of regenerating the natural bunchgrasses and forb community that’s there. But when that cheatgrass takes hold, it creates this cycle that it reduces the interval of the fires far less than what it would have been historically and they’re more intense because anybody that’s been in a field of dry cheatgrass knows you drop a match or a cigarette butt or anything in there, it’s going to go fast and burn hot.

So you get this perpetual cycle and the habitat just never gets a chance to come back. And it could take decades to restore some of this habitat. And that’s some of the conversations right now. It’s like, where do we focus limited resources and how do we prioritize habitats? And some probably aren’t going to get restored anytime soon, others that it just kind of depends on how they fall out in the prioritization scheme when they use minimal resources.

Hank Shaw: So before we get to the mechanics of hunting and dogs and that sort of thing, what has happened in a sort of broad brush strokes since the 2015 pact was signed, many of us know that it didn’t actually work. And my impression is that it’s a change of administration and change of priorities.

Ed Arnett: That’s correct. Yeah and I’ll give you the very quick, dirty version of it. When the Trump administration came in and then secretary Ryan Zinke came on board, there was an immediate call to revise the 2015 plans. The ink wasn’t even hardly dry on them. Certainly, there wasn’t a lot of implementation. I mean, I think that’s one of the reasons I say this was one of the greatest conservation planning efforts ever in the history of wildlife management ever. But I say planning because you got to implement the plans, they’re only paper birds and paper habitat and a document until you actually do something on the ground. So you got to implement the plans. And we were just starting to implement the plans and changes were called for, and ultimately made in 2019.

Now a lot of people will say they were devastating and such and there were some changes that the states were calling for that were minor and really clarifications or comporting more of the state plan so you didn’t have two sets of guidelines to do the same thing, those kinds of things that really weren’t detrimental or a loss of protections, if you will. But a lot of things did change, there were protections for a certain sets of habitat called focal area. And what this was, the way the plans were laid out, Hank, they had priority habitat and then general habitat and the priority habitat was kind of the best habitat and where most of the birds still were residing as of today. 70, 80% of the populations were in that what’s called a core priority habitat. Well, the Fish and Wildlife Service took a subset of that about 11 million acres of 37 or so million acres. And they basically said, “This is off limits to mining. It’s off limits to everything. We’re going to call these sagebrush focal areas.”

And it’s the very best of the best, the in theory, and theoretically the maps were right, which we found out that some of them weren’t. But bottom line, that was the concept. Good concept. It’s a reserve concept if you will. You can’t do anything here. In the rest of the priority habitat, you could do certain amounts of development or activities, but it was restricted so there were buffers around the Lex and a certain amount of habitat that could be disturbed within a landscape area, that kind of thing. And then the general habitat areas had less protections, but still had some protections in conservation.

Well, the 2019 plans removed those focal areas which they still have to be managed as priority habitat, but that was removed. The mitigation requirements were changed. And what that means is when you go into and drill an oil well or set up a wind farm or whatever else that has disturbance, there may be a compensatory mitigation requirement-

Hank Shaw: Which in English means, hey, if you screw something up in one spot, fix it in another.

Ed Arnett: Fix it in another. Exactly. I’m sorry, I don’t speak English as often as I should on this, do I? You’re there to correct me. So that requirement was all but removed by the department of interior. So what they did was they deferred to the states and some States had okay plans and others didn’t. I think that’s gotten better, but they changed the mitigation standard and there were a number of other changes that happened. But long story short, changes were made and that went to court and Judge Winmill in Idaho who is part of a-

Hank Shaw: No way. The name of the judge is Windmill?

Ed Arnett: Win, W-I-N. Yeah, would that be ironic? Yeah right. He looked at the case and said no. The 2019 plans did not follow the science. They did not comport with new information, which is true that between 2015 and 2019 a lot happened. Awful lot of habitat burned. I mentioned the 9 million acres, that’s one estimate. There are probably others out there. It could be more. One estimate I just heard recently is that we’ve continued to lose about 1% of priority habitat each year since the plans were signed. So we’re still losing habitat.

Hank Shaw: And that’s the good stuff.

Ed Arnett: That’s the good stuff. Exactly. Yeah. And there I didn’t hear an estimate on general habitat. So the judge said, “No BLM, you have to go back. And for now, you’re going to continue to implement the 2015 plans.” And that’s where we sit as of today. The BLM has gone back and tried to rejustify what their planning process was and how they justified in the 2019 plans, the changes, and that has to go before the judge yet.

So right now we’re still kind of in a holding pattern, which is not good for grouse. There’s a lot of confusion. You’ve got the BLM moving from DC. You’ve got a lot of chaos and a lot of things going on within the federal agencies. I’m not saying that the agencies aren’t implementing the 2015 plans, but it’s unclear what the future holds, whether it’ll be 2015 or 2019, and then we’ve got another election coming up. And if we have another change in administration, there could be more changes. So chaos is not … that kind of political pendulum swinging and changes in plans and not getting things on the ground consistently is not good for grouse. It’s not good for conservation.

So that’s kind of where we are as of today. And I can tell you that the numbers have been on a steep decline for the last three years. Range wide, the numbers are down 30 to 50%. This year they stabilized a little bit, but they’re still down from 2016. 2016 we saw a little bit of an uptick. And well, 2014 and 15 were actually both very good years leading right up to the decision. They were very good years.

Hank Shaw: Let me stop you for a second. How long do sage-grouse live? What’s like a typical, big boomer? How old is that bird?

Ed Arnett: So they live longer than, in captivity, I’ve read seven years I think or so. So they live a little longer than most. I think their average lifespan is a couple of years longer than the average pheasant or other native grouse. The native grouse seem to persist a little longer. They’re pretty hardy. I heard you mentioning in your grouse podcast with someone else how weak they are relative to a pheasant when you shoot them, which is absolutely true. I have nothing but corroboration on that, but they’re damn hardy when it comes to winter. And sage-grouse are interesting and unique in that they survive the winter more so than other game birds. They’re pretty, they actually can gain fat from eating sagebrush and just their hardiness allows them to survive the winter a little bit better than some species of game birds and thus you got to be a little more careful with the hunting seasons.

So I’ve talked this over with a number of folks and while they agree that hunting is not a major threat to grouse, you have to manage them differently. And the states have done a very good job accordingly. And what that really translates into given all the disturbance and loss of habitat is lost opportunity for all of us. I mean, when I was in grad school, Wyoming, you could shoot three a day for at least one month and it might’ve been two and it very liberally harvested. And there was a moment in time in 2013 when Wyoming had proposed to close the season statewide. And they did close at least two zones and now they’ve gone back to it. Then they went to a week season and now they’ve gone, they’re back to two weeks, roughly, mid September to the end of September. But my point here is that they have to be managed very carefully. And I already mentioned Idaho, which is now contemplating going to a permit system and they were very abundant there.

Hank Shaw: I’d like to take a moment to thank Hunt To Eat for sponsoring the Hunt Gather Talk podcast. Hunt To Eat is a casual hunting and angling apparel company based on community, real food and conservation. Head over to hunttoeat.com and check out the Hank Shaw t-shirt collection. You’ll also find wild game recipes, hats and other kinds of gear, including aprons with the Hunter Angler Gardener Cook logo on them. If you use the code Hank Shaw at checkout, you will get 10% off your order. Thanks again to Hunt To Eat and back to the podcast. So let’s talk about, because most people who listen to this want to hunt sage-grouse. People to do it, and you had mentioned before you used the term trophy bird, and I think I know what you mean by that. And because my trophies are still at the table, but the point is this is my deal with sage-grouse hunting and I want to hear yours as well.

So when I go sage-grouse hunting, I absolutely want to shoot a limit. Like I totally want to shoot a limit because it’s a great day. You shot your two or three or whatever it is, but then you know like, okay, I’m done. So whether you shoot three birds in a season or two birds in a season or three birds in one day, I think the nature, the precarious nature of sage-grouse and sage-grouse hunting is such that the fact that we can even get a taste for using East coast expression, is still a great thing that needs to be recognized and honored by everybody who goes out there and pursues this bird, because there are just not that many of them out there and we’re lucky to be able to still hunt them and I think they’re delicious. We will get into that in a little bit-

Ed Arnett: Believe me, I do too.

Hank Shaw: But yeah, like I said before, you’re not filling your freezer with sage hens.

Ed Arnett: That’s right. So when I talk about a trophy bird, I think of that in terms of the experience, the individual, the place, those kinds of things like you would a trophy in general, but it’s defined in many number of ways. I love your definition at the table. But when you’re putting a tag lottery system out, that kind of by default suggests you’re hunting more like turkeys. It’s more of a trophy kind of a bird, but to me, it’s coupled with the experience. And I limit myself in good years to two possession limits in Wyoming, which is four birds basically and I may take a couple in Colorado. We’re starting to scale back. We’ve got one population in what’s called Middle Park Colorado, that you can shoot two birds for the season. And then in Northwest Colorado, you can shoot two a day for about seven to 10 days.

Hank Shaw: I have hunted that spot.

Ed Arnett: Yeah. And I’ll take two possessions there. So I usually don’t shoot more than six or eight. And depending on how I’m feeling, if the population’s good, I might take an extra one because I like to eat them. I think they’re great. They’re unique. I like serving them to people that have never had them before. And you’re right, they’re good. I’ve never had a bad one, even a bomber and I’ve shot a lot of sage-grouse over the years. And I just, I hear people talk about how bad they are, as you damn well know, they’re just not being prepared correctly.

Hank Shaw: We’ll get to that after. Let’s hunt one first and then we’ll get into cooking one. So if I’m going to hunt a sage-grouse, alright, you hunted them more than I have. I have hunted them enough to have some rudimentary knowledge, but you’ve hunted them more than I have. So if you’re going to tell the listeners out there, okay, I want to hunt sage-grouse, what are four or five or a set number of things that you need to know and need to be able to do to be successful?

Ed Arnett: So I think from a public lands perspective, which probably 95% of the people are going to be hunting on public lands, first of all, they’re not hunted that extensively, so it’s not like you’re going to go out and pull into a spot and go, “Oh, gosh, five guys here.” That’s not going to be the case. You’re not going to see a ton of people out there targeting sage-grouse. In fact, I didn’t even target them until I got dogs and I think you’re familiar the day I decided to buy a dog, the article I wrote for Holly. I never targeted that species. I didn’t target any birds really for that matter. I hunted them incidentally to antelope. When I was out antelope hunting, I’d always carry my 410 with me.

My grandpa’s old .410 shotgun that I learned to shoot on because it was real handy to snap out of the truck and go see one when I … or go shoot one when I saw it, but I didn’t target them. With dogs, obviously a little bit different, but let’s just kind of go down that path of whether you have a dog or not. It’s the same search image. You’re looking for, in my opinion, those areas that are extensive, rolling hills sagebrush country with water and those wet mesic areas, particularly early in the season. Now you got to be careful early in the season because of all the hazards of snakes and heat and all that kind of thing. In Wyoming, it starts up later in September, but it’s still darn hot. But I’m looking for those mesic wet areas, wet meadow areas and those kinds of things with sagebrush ridges along on them and that’s what I tend to hunt.

I try to catch them. I try to usually wait until they’re done feeding and settled down. And usually my experience has been, I can find them along those meadows or creek bottom, little creeks that are going through the steeper ridges on the North or East facing slope where there’s shade, more shade during the heat of the day. But I’ve also just stowed over and found them just anywhere in sage. But like I-

Hank Shaw: This is not like duck hunting. This is an after breakfast hunt by the way.

Ed Arnett: Yeah, exactly. And I get out there first light for a lot of birds just because it’s fun to be out there at first light, but the reality on most upland birds is you want to let them get the feeding period done and then go settle down and covey up and be ready to bust into the cubbies, which is usually after 8:00, 9:00, something like that. But when it’s hot out, I’d go earlier just because of the dogs. So like when I go to hunt the Sandhills, if I go early in the Sandhills in Nebraska, I have to hunt. Like if I go opening day on September 1st and hunt doves and prey grouse in combo, I have to hunt the grouse in the morning or I don’t hunt at all because it’s just too damn hot for Labs anyway and that’s what I run.

But as it cools off in September, it can snow, you just never know. But that’s what I’m kind of looking for, those areas with the wet meadows and such, but you can hook them up in the higher mountain sagebrush or mountain big sagebrush too and a lot of times you’ll find them around a mixture of serviceberry and mountain big sage, but those nice big open flats or rolling ridges that have those meadows is really the key. That’s the search image I’m usually looking for.

Hank Shaw: If you’re going to … most people here listening to this don’t live in sage-grouse states. So where would you send somebody who wants to get their sage-grouse?

Ed Arnett: Well, Wyoming and Montana have the most liberal seasons and the highest populations. Wyoming has about 38% of the total range wide population of all sage-grouse. Montana’s up around 20 or so percent and then it just kind of goes down from there through Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Utah has about 4% and Utah you’re on a tag lottery system. We have some good sage-grouse hunting here in Colorado. We’ve actually had some down years. And something I didn’t mention, which I didn’t want to get into the weeds and the details of the conservation plan, state or federal, but most of those, the federal level and most of the States have triggers, what are called triggers. And when the population gets to a point through those lek counts that we talked about when biologists go out and count the number of males, which is an index that they use to determine population and how stable it is or whether it’s going up or down and they can use that to set seasons.

So for three years in a row if those lek counts for example are below a certain average number, then they can adjust the seasons and that’s what Colorado’s contemplating. They’re actually contemplating closing one area, one zone, a couple of units because of the low population numbers, happens to be when I used to hunt. And in that case, I’m obviously not going to hunt because it’s closed, but even if it was open, I probably wouldn’t even go there just because they’re hurting. But anyway, I’d start with Wyoming. They’re a good population and zone one is what you’re going to hunt. They have opened up there’s I think four zones in the state and one kind of covers the vast majority of the whole state of Wyoming. So you can … yeah and then there’s-

Hank Shaw: So you’re not giving up your honey hole?

Ed Arnett: If that’s where you’re going, I’ll take you there sometime, but no, I’m not going to pop that off. No, but I mean, if you go into like-

Hank Shaw: Down this road and then [crosstalk 00:59:27].

Ed Arnett: Well, if you know Wyoming, you can probably throw a dart at the map and hunt within a two mile radius of that darn hat and you’re going to find a sage-grouse in the sage country. Shirley basin used to be really good and that’s all that country North of Rawlins and up through Casper, there’s a lot of birds in that area. A lot of birds South of there, all the way down to the state line. Yeah. And it’s they vary. The areas vary depending on the year in particular, if you’ve got good precip and good habitat, you’ll have good numbers. I’m not expecting there to be great numbers this year. I think, like I said, the lek counts, they’re still being analyzed.

But what I heard for this particular spring was they’re stable, but stable means they haven’t declined from last year and last year was a really low year. So it’s all relative, but I think anywhere in the sage country in Wyoming where you’ve got those wet meadows and stuff, you’re going to find birds. Montana out East and then North, the Northern counties, I think it’s Phillips county and up in that country, there’s good numbers there too.

Hank Shaw: Let’s talk guns for a second. I will typically hunt them with Tinkerbell which is my 20 gauge over and under and I have had no problems And I’ll tend to use either like Prairie Storm fives or something just because I don’t want really want to wound them and they actually can run. They run more than a lot of other grouse I’ve found and I don’t want them running because they look exactly like sage-grouse.

Ed Arnett: Yeah, and you don’t have a dog.

Hank Shaw: Yes.

Ed Arnett: You don’t want them running.

Hank Shaw: So I’m using 20 gauge fives or sixes, in my opinion.

Ed Arnett: That’s what I shoot. Yup. That’s what I shoot. I have yet to buy my over and under and it’s on the list to buy. I have a Beretta silver mallard auto loader that I use, very light. So I shoot that, but I feel like breaking out the 12, I shoot a Beretta 686 or a silver pigeon one. I also have a 686, but that’s my duck gun. That’s a heavy gun. I wouldn’t carry that for sage-grouse.

No, they absolutely can. But no, I shoot a 20 at them because I have dogs and I’m expecting the flush pretty close under feet, so-

Hank Shaw: So you can chase them. So I’ve found that if you flush them and you don’t shoot your fill in the first flush, which is often, you can see, you can watch them fly over that ridge and you can walk over that ridge and they’ll typically be there. I mean, it might be another five miles, but you’ll see where … you’ll know where to go.

Ed Arnett: Yeah. They definitely go a long way, but I have more often than not found them when I’ve done that. And you’re absolutely right. It’s just a question of whether you can see where they land. If you can’t, then it’s a crap shoot. You just try to grid the habitat and find them. In fact, we did that last year, a buddy of mine and I. The first, we busted them wild, the dogs got into them and we were just in bad shooting positions. How often does that happen?

Hank Shaw: Oh, never.

Ed Arnett: Yeah. Never. I’m looking up and the birds have come up and they’re just too far to shoot. So we watched them and we watched them go down and we went in and got our birds. The next day a similar thing happened. My buddy killed one and I ended up not getting one. I shot poorly at that moment in time. And exactly, yeah, we watched them go down and we thought we knew where they were and we never did find them. Never did. And I have two dogs.

Hank Shaw: That’s a crazy thing. Like I have hunted them with a dog and without a dog and I have had them plush at my feet both times. And there’s nothing quite, I mean, everybody here who’s listening to this has probably had a pheasant plush at your feet, chances are, which is heart attack inducing enough. Now double the size of the bird.

Ed Arnett: Yeah. And then you think, oh, they’re moving so slow. You still got to swing the damn gun.

Hank Shaw: Oh yeah. I mean, that’s a thing. They-

Ed Arnett: They look like they’re just in slow motion, don’t they?

Hank Shaw: They totally do. And my advice, with all wing shooting and especially large birds is if you’re going to miss them, miss in front of them.

Ed Arnett: In front. You don’t miss very many when you’re shooting in front of them. That’s for sure.

Hank Shaw: So I find them to be ridiculously easy to pluck. They’re infinitely easier to pluck than any other grouse that I’ve ever encountered. Like easy peasy. So sage-grouse are easy, whereas ruffies are by far the hardest. They just have a gossamer skin where the sharp or the sage-grouse just do not. Before we get into like after we’ve got some in the bag, let’s talk about dogs. You said you run Labs and so you’re dealing with flushing Labs or do you-

Ed Arnett: Yeah, those are flushers. They’re they’re flushing dogs. And like I said, you’re familiar with the story I believe when I decided to buy dogs and I always, I heard another guest you were talking with someone and you’re not going to get it all with every dog, obviously. Some prefer the versatiles because they get the pointing aspect and I get a duck and goose dog, but they’re not going to sit in the river in the cold river, like my dog will, on a river hunting ducks and such. So you’re just not going to get everything with a versatile or with a Lab. But I chose a Lab. I fell in love with a friend of mine’s Lab when I was in graduate school long before I had a dog. And I just really liked that dog.

Ed Arnett: And then I hunted with my buddies Chesapeakes and I liked them, but I didn’t necessarily want to Chesapeake, so I went with the Lab. [crosstalk 01:05:22]. And well, the irony is I ended up with what I call, and I named her Tule, but we often called her two by four Tule because she was no doubt a stubborn dog. So interestingly that I didn’t go with the Chesapeake and got a stubborn Lab as my first one.

Hank Shaw: But if you wanted to design a sage-grouse hunting dog, what would it be?

Ed Arnett: Well, I think you’re hard pressed to beat the shorthairs and drathars and those types of dogs in that country. And I hunt pretty differently with, I usually I hunt by myself or I’m hunting with one other person and usually they don’t have dogs. That’s the norm for me and you have to hunt differently with the flushing dogs. I high-grade habitat. You can’t go running. A big running pointer can run a lot of ground and find you a covey of sage-grouse. I might run that same country all day and maybe find a bird, but I’ve wore my dogs out. So I try to pick that habitat like I was describing earlier and I try to high grade it because I don’t want to wear my dogs out.

So I think in that situation, Labs do just fine, but you got to know how to hunt them and where, or just know their limits and when to stop them. I think one of your prior guests, I was listening runs German shorthairs and I think that’s a couple of them. I think that’s a perfect breed for this. And I’ve actually hunted. I ran into a guy in Wyoming and we ended up hunting together. I had my Lab and he had his shorthairs and they worked really nice together. His dogs found the bird, mine retrieved them.

Hank Shaw: Perfect.

Ed Arnett: It was a perfect [crosstalk 01:07:09].

Hank Shaw: Oh my God, that’s my hugest, hugest pet peeve with pointing dogs is, it’s the pointing dog that cares not at all whether you’ve actually retrieved the bird. Like that drives me batty. Like I’m sorry, dog. Your job, yes, it’s nice that you found the bird, but quite often I shoot birds better when I don’t have a pointed bird, but like help me find the damn thing. They’re exactly the color of wherever they live and you have a good nose and I don’t, so please give me a hand. I don’t even care if you pick it up, just show me where it is. In fact, it’s preferred if you just show me where it is, because then it’s not all chewed up.

Ed Arnett: I can’t remember if when we were in South Dakota, I don’t think you and I hunted together, like where you were right behind my dogs. I don’t think we had that opportunity. We have to do that. I don’t think we did.

Hank Shaw: We did hunt together, but I think it was [crosstalk 01:07:58].

Ed Arnett: Yeah. I think we were apart. You weren’t right with me. I know that, where I could say, “Hey, get over here. My dogs are hot.”

Hank Shaw: I think it was both of us were … Oh, and I can tell you that we definitely out walked everybody else on that hunt.

Ed Arnett: Yeah, we did.

Hank Shaw: We put up a nice tailgate full of prairie chickens that day.

Ed Arnett: Yeah. I was looking at that picture. It’s like, hey, that’s my dog kennel. It’s interesting because, and the whole dog thing, when you’re … People that have flushing dogs know you can read that dog. It’s not like you’d say, “Oh look, he’s on point.” That’s pretty obvious. But all these flushing dogs are just a little bit different. So nine times out of 10, they’re going to start wagging their tail to where it’s almost flying off their butt and you know they’re hot and they’re close. And I remember on that particular hunt, because one of our compadres was close by and I said, “Hey, she’s hot. Come here. She’s hot.” And I’m watching my female and she was red fricking hot. And I’m just waiting.

And I predicted this ridge by the way, I said, “Yeah, we got a hunt that ridge. I’m pretty dang sure there’s going to be some birds in this landscape. They’re going to be right there.” And sure enough, there’s a covey there. And she, and the guy wouldn’t pay a … He wouldn’t break line. They were trying to hunt them like pheasants and he wouldn’t break the line. I said, “Come on, come on, come on, follow the dog.” They got up and I killed two and nobody else, I think a couple of stragglers went that way and others got shots, but you got to watch the dog.

Hank Shaw: Yes. Yeah. I mean, if you hunt without a dog, just be prepared to walk three times as much. And the high grading the habitat is also a really good idea. In my experience, when you find them, you can kill them. So it’s not one of those deals where if you’re a solo, non dog hunter would say pheasants, your only chance is to do the radio trick. So which if you’re not familiar with the radio trick, you take a transistor radio or some kind of a portable radio and you turn it on talk radio. Typically, Rush Limbaugh because birds hate Rush Limbaugh. That’s just the mic.

Ed Arnett: I didn’t know they were political.

Hank Shaw: It might be his tone of voice or something, but so you put on talk radio and then you put it on one end of the field you’re going to walk and then you quietly go to the other end of the field that you’re going to walk. Usually these fields are like half a mile or a mile, and you use zigzag just like Sheldon in the in-laws, serpentine Sheldon, and you go back and forth and back and forth towards your radio. And as you get towards your radio, you’ll soon realize that there have been pheasants running in front of you this entire time. And then when they hear the radio, at least some of them will jump up and fly. And it’s the only way I’ve ever determined to be able to kill pheasants consistently in fields. Now you can get them in cattails. Cattails in the winter time, that’s another story, but it’s sage hens are not like that. Like if you get on them and you get close enough, they’re not going to let you walk by.

Ed Arnett: I can get them with my Labs just fine. I kill lots of sage-grouse all the time, but just that big open country, having those pointers is probably a really good bet, that just, you can just cover more ground, but it depends on who’s covering the ground. The dog covers the ground. I cover the ground because I have to go to one high grade spot to the next. So put some miles on. But yeah, no they’re quite adept at finding them. And I’ve never had a snake problem, but that definitely is an issue early in the season.

Hank Shaw: More for your dog than you. I mean, I’ve never-

Ed Arnett: Exactly.

Hank Shaw: Rattlers seem to be like, “Hey, I’m over here. Don’t come here.” I’m like, “Okay, that’s fine.”

Ed Arnett: Yeah. I think just keying in on some of those wet meadows. And that’s what I was saying earlier. I think if you really wanted to put a conservation hunt in and maybe that’s not the right terminology, conservation, but if you want to conserve more birds during and have a hunting season, you just bump it into October. But then you’re buttoned up with deer season and those kinds of things and so there’s a reason that they put them early. But if we really wanted to reduce harvest of hens and young of the year, that’s the way to do it is to move it later in October when they’re scattered out a little more and not using those wet meadows so religiously, because they use them pretty extensively and you can usually find them if you find a good spot.

Hank Shaw: So once you have some sage hens, like I said, they’re easy to pluck. So please pluck them. You’re probably only going to shoot three to six to eight in the entire season, so they’re worth your time. The skins get crispy and it’s delicious and it’s not the least bit unpleasantly sagey, although let’s face it, sage-grouse tastes like sage. That’s what they eat. They’re going to be a kind of a sagey taste to them and you really just have to go with what God gave you. If you think it’s a chicken, you will be sadly disappointed. However, there is a very weird phenomenon and it’s pronounced in sage-grouse. It exists in prairie chickens, and it’s very pronounced in woodcock as well, where the breast meat of the sage-grouse is dark, but the so-called dark meat of the sage-grouse is white.

So if you were to braise sage-grouse legs, they would be no darker than the breast of a ruffed grouse, which is to say not pale like a chicken, but still not red. But yet the breast meat of a sage-grouse is dark red like a duck. So do you have any idea what causes that phenomenon?

Ed Arnett: Now I wish I had looked that up because I heard you talking about this before and I should have anticipated the question, but I think these birds fly a fair bit more. Sage-grouse will migrate and long distances actually. And you talked about-

Hank Shaw: What’s a long distance?

Ed Arnett: A hundred miles or more sometimes to go to winter range. It’s not like they’re flying a hundred miles straight through, but they fly quite a bit and you’d mentioned and I was chuckling in past shooting prairie chickens. I have done that and I’ve done it exactly the way you said it should be done on one of your other shows. So they fly a lot more so that oxygenates the muscles more and creates that redness, but they also walk around a lot too. So I don’t have a great explanation. I think one of your prior guests said, get a meat scientist involved. I think that’s probably a good question for them. I’ll look into it and I’ll have to get back to you. I did not look it up before the cast, but it’s obviously a phenomena across all the prairie grouse, but that dark red meats’ great. It’s really good. It’s awesome.

But my theory is that they fly a little more than they average game bird and they oxygenate that blood, which creates more redness. So it’s obvious in waterfowl. I mean, they’re flying around all the time, but prairie chicken fly around a lot more than people think. They will fly from rouge down to cornfields and back all the time, which doesn’t necessarily explain why sharptails are red either. So there’s a physiological phenomenon there that the biologist here should have looked up for you.

Hank Shaw: So my number one iron rule of cooking pretty much any red meat bird is cook the breast meat like a steak. It should not be cooked like your Thanksgiving turkey. It should be cooked like a duck breast or a steak, which is to say as close to medium rare as you can possibly get. The legs and wings, just keep cooking them until already because a lot of people think that they’re inedible, they’re too tough or whatever. It’s just, you’re not cooking it long enough. Now the sinews in the drumsticks of the sage-grouse are not nearly as ferocious as those in a pheasant, but they’re still there. And I end up shredding the meat off the drumsticks when I served sage-grouse legs.

Ed Arnett: I do the same with my grouse legs. Yup. I mean, a lot of times I’ll cut them right in half and just cook them like a half chicken. And I’m very simple, extremely simple. And I have to painfully admit I have not skinned or I have, I usually skin but I have not plucked-

Hank Shaw: Blasphemy.

Ed Arnett: But I’m going to. I’m going to.

Hank Shaw: Don’t you blaspheme in here.

Ed Arnett: What Jim Harrison says, “A sin against God and man to pluck or skin a bird.” Something to that effect.

Hank Shaw: Well, unless you’re hunting eiders.

Ed Arnett: Right. But yeah, I skin them out and I cut them in half and I braise them with olive oil, a heavy dose of olive oil, whatever seasoning I like at the day. I like Cajun, to be honest with you, the Cajun is really good with that red meat. And the olive oil, of course, real hot, hot as you can get the grill and hot and fast and medium rare, and you’re always 30 seconds away from ruining it. So at least with the skin off, but medium rare, that’s the key.

Hank Shaw: The craziest thing with sharpies and chickens and sage-grouse is that that meat goes from … you’re right, it’s 30 seconds away from ruining it where like that meat goes from, oh man, it’s not even cooked to gray in literally seconds. It’s like, there’s nothing else in the North America and wild game world that changes color as fast as these bird breasts. Now that said, I’ve eaten buckets of those, the breasts of these prairie grouse and even if it does turn gray, but it’s just turned gray like a second ago, it’s still fine. It’s when you really cook the hell out of it that it becomes like chalky liver.

Ed Arnett: Yup. Exactly. And sometimes if I don’t cut the … I’ll just take the legs and just build them up and then crack them and make a soup or stew or something out of it like they’re tacos. So yeah.

Hank Shaw: I’ve done a really cool sage-grouse centric, I’ve got a couple of sage-grouse centric recipes in Pheasant, Quail, Cottontail, which is my latest cookbook if you’re listening to this and you don’t know that, and they like stronger flavors cause they are stronger flavored. I really don’t think that you can avoid a, especially if you have skin on it, a sagey flavor, but it is not an unpleasant sagey flavor. And there were people like, “I can’t eat it or whatever.” It’s like, well, your mind’s just in the wrong spot. It’s not a chicken. It’s something that is special to the sagebrush sea. Use the ingredients that are around you. Like juniper is a good one that goes with it. Serviceberries are a good thing that goes with it.

Ed Arnett: I was going to ask you about serviceberries because these are currents, you’ve used current berries with them, right?

Hank Shaw: Correct. Yeah. In Idaho.

Ed Arnett: Yeah. I wondered about serviceberries. That’s interesting. You know, in the Sandhills, there’s lots of wild plums.

Hank Shaw: Oh, the sand plums. Right.

Ed Arnett: Yeah. And you can find them in Montana too or buffalo berries or whatever-

Hank Shaw: Chokecherries.

Ed Arnett: Yup exactly. And I remember one of my hunts up there, my wife and I collected, it just happened to be a particularly good plum year and we pulled down a bunch of them and she made a chutney and we put it on sharptails and oh my God, was it good.

Hank Shaw: Yeah, chutney is a great idea. [crosstalk 01:19:38].

Ed Arnett: Yeah. It was great.

Hank Shaw: So another good idea is with these native fruits that you find while you’re hunting and this goes for any prairie grouse is to make what’s called a gastrique, which would be, you’d make a syrup or just a juice out of the berry. So in the case of say currants or chokecherries or serviceberries, you basically pretend like you’re going to make a jelly and just don’t set it with pectin. So you boil them in a bit of water and then you strain it and then you’ve got this juice and or syrup, depending on how much you put sugar in it. And then that, a gastrique is just a fancy French term for a sweet and sour sauce. So it’s your native fruit turned into a liquid that you add some something tart to.

So in chokecherries, you would need just probably sugar. But in the case of serviceberries or currants, you’ll need like a splash of vinegar. You could go citrus, but vinegar is much more traditional in that tart and I add chili when I’m cooking it so that you’ve got hot, sweet and tart all at the same time, it makes a fantastic glaze for really anything. You can put it on a bumper and it’d be fine, but it’s especially good with the grouse that you find where those berries live.

Ed Arnett: Oh, that’s great. Yeah. Is that in the book?

Hank Shaw: It is.

Ed Arnett: I am going to look that one up. The mixture of flavors sounds delicious.

Hank Shaw: The specific recipe that it is in Pheasant, Quail, Cottontail is, I have a recipe for Hungarian Partridge done in the flavors of Montana. There was chokecherries in specific. I found them when I was … And then I did a sharptail grouse prairie flavors I called it and it’s pretty simple. Like the only hard thing is to do is you take a bunch of berries and you squash them and then you add a little bit of water, and then you bring it to a boil because what that does is it separates the pulp and allows you to get more liquid out of it than if you just juiced it. I mean, you have one of those steam juicers, those work great too. So before we go, I think a good way to end this because again, even though this is technically a podcast about cooking and eating wild game, the cooking and eating of wild, the sage-grouse is pretty limited.

I think what’s important for everybody to know who’s listening to this is don’t stop hunting them, be judicious and hunt in moderation. And I think it’s in my opinion, and it probably yours as well, it’s important for those of us who do hunt and take sage-grouse out of the environment to do something, to do your bit to add something back to the sage-grouse environment, because it’s such a precarious position. And the one way that you can go about it is to join groups like the Theater Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

And also there’s another group called the North American Grouse Partnership, which specifically focuses on those prairie grouse. And to some extent, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever also help with grouse habitat. This is a way that if you’re just a regular Joe hunter, that you can pay your 35 bucks to be a member of that organization and you chip in and you do something. Because more than in my .. I want to hear about your thoughts about this in a second, but more than really any other bird that we hunt in North America, this is one where you need to pay your dues if you’re going to actually hunt it.

Ed Arnett: That was exceptionally well said Hank, and I think people sometimes wonder it’s a little bit like voting, right? It’s like, well, what does my vote matter? It’s just one. Well, that’s the cumulative effect of voting, of having a voice, all of those kinds of things. And you’re absolutely right. Joining those organizations, contributing some way does make a difference. And I’ll just give you a simple example when we were doing a lot of our advocacy work on the sage-grouse conservation plans, and we continue that right up to today actually. We would ask for people to sign petitions, and maybe you’ve even signed some of our petitions, when we were trying to suggest to the secretary of interior that they not change the 2015 plans. We had thousands of signatures and that’s various organizations are doing that. If you accumulate all of the different groups that were doing these kinds of petitions, hundreds of thousands of people were saying, “No, you should not do this.”

Now that didn’t necessarily stop them, but quite often it does make a big difference. And oftentimes I’ll get my scientist colleagues to sign off on letters and it means a lot when 100 scientists say you shouldn’t do these kinds of things. It means a lot from the constituency that’s saying we think sage-grouse are important. We think sage-grouse conservation planning and implementation is important. Do the right thing. So you’re absolutely right. It makes a difference and it is a simple way to give back beyond just buying your shotgun and your shells and contributing to the Pittman Robertson Fund and your license. So it’s a great way to help out.

Hank Shaw: So where can people find you either on social media or on the internet or where can they go to keep tabs on what people are doing for sage-grouse research or for places that they can go to chip in?

Ed Arnett: So our website is pretty simple. It’s www.trcp.org. And then there are links to our various partner groups like the North American Grouse Partnership. You can find them through our website. You can find me under the staff profiles. I’m on Facebook. I’m on Instagram too. I haven’t quite gone to the Twitter route, but just type in Arnett and you’ll find me there. And their email links on our website, on the staff page. When you find mine, you should be able to drop me an email If you’ve got a question or a follow up on this. I’d be happy to talk to folks.

Hank Shaw: Well, all right, Ed, thank you so much. This has been actually a really long conversation but it’s a good one. I will have a lot of what you had just mentioned in the show notes. And so I’m now actually doing transcripts of our podcasts as well. So we will have that in full print and I’ll clean up a lot of the ums and ahs as well.

Ed Arnett: Well, Hank, I really appreciate being on your show and I really appreciate what you do for conservation. It’s far more important than I suspect you even think. We really appreciate your voice out there.

Hank Shaw: Yeah. I’ll see you in the field this fall. That’s our show for this week. I am your host, Hank Shaw. And once again, I’d like to thank our sponsors Hunt To Eat and Filson for sponsoring the show. Remember if you want to follow me on social media, I am very active on Instagram and my handle is @Huntgathercook, and I’m also active on a Facebook group called Hunt Gather Cook. It’s a private group within Facebook and you have to answer some questions to be a member of it. Just say that you heard me on my podcast and I will let you in.

And as always, the core of what I do is on my website, which is Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. You can find me honest-food.net or you can type in huntgathercook.com. Both will get you there. You will find literally thousands of recipes for all sorts of wild foods, everything from wild plants and wild mushrooms to all sorts of fish and seafood to of course, game, upland birds, deer, bear, pigs, you name it, ducks. So visit Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, and hopefully you will find what you were looking for. Take it easy, everybody and I will talk with you next week.

 

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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5 Comments

  1. Hello Hank, Great podcast on sage grouse. I’ve been hunting them in Nevada for 40 years and they are my favorite bird to eat, “flying filet mignon”. I’ve never plucked one but I will try it this year. One thing we do to help to flavor of the bird is that we gut the bird as soon as we shoot them (we cut a small slit and sling the guts out) because it can be in your hunting vest for a long period of time when walking those sage flats and temperature can be warm. We also pay close attention to the crop and remove it because it’s usually filled with sagebrush and pellets that pass through will allow the fermented sagebrush juices to strongly flavor the meat, not in a good way. When I encounter a person who believes we shouldn’t be hunting them, I explain that nevada requires that we turn in the a wing from each grouse, the location and the amount of birds observed with is very valuable information that they wouldn’t normally be able to obtain. Keep up the great work!

  2. While there is a large amount of info on the decline of Sage Grouse populations in the arid West due to habit degradation in your podcast and fire suppression plus gas and oil drilling impacts appearing to be a major factor. But I really can’t understand the mindset of you advocating for continued hunting of a species in such precipitous decline.

    Sage Grouse is not the only species in precipitous decline due to habitat loss and human impact.

    A major headline today is this:
    “Wildlife in ‘catastrophic decline’ due to human destruction, scientists warn”

    Wildlife populations have fallen by more than two-thirds in less than 50 years, according to a major report by the conservation group WWF.

    Again, how do you justify hunting a species crashing in numbers and already extinct in Western Canada? Just stating it is a special experience does not justify the loss of additional mature Sage Grouse in my mind.

  3. Hi Hank, well I can’t wait to listen to the podcast I’ve scanned the article and it hit home with me. I grew up in Wyoming and we hunted almost everything with feathers especially sage grouse. I remember that I thought we would never see the population decline so fast forward to the last 20 years or so and it leaves me concerned with what is happening to this fun bird to hunt. Thanks for all that you do.