Friday, February 12, 2010

Sage grouse: To hunt or not to hunt?

In Wyoming, sage grouse are one of the few upland birds to hunt, and even so, it's hardly worth the bother. Wyoming graciously allows a nine-day season for the big birds, with a two-bird daily limit.

I could argue that the state is ridiculously conservative with sage grouse seasons, but, hey, it's Wyoming! Of course, it's ridiculously conservative!

I haven't shot a sage hen in the Cowboy State for probably 10 years, and I'm having second thoughts about ever shooting them again.

Let me say that I love hunting the large, native grouse. I like the country they live in, the goofy way they fly, and how many of them you can see in good sagebrush habitat. Plus, my dog really likes to hunt them. They must put out terrific scent for a dog.

That said, they have a gamey taste, which isn't always a good thing. At worst, they taste like sagebrush. At best, venison. Adding to the questionable flavor, the sage grouse is threatened in much of its former range. The feds are considering endangered species status for it.

You wouldn't suspect that if you hunted with me in Montana last fall. I found sage grouse everywhere, including in places you would expect to find pheasant or sharptails, but not sage hen. I shot five sage grouse last fall in Montana, but could have harvested more if I focused on their habitat.

But in the back of my mind, whenever I pull the trigger on a big bomber, I think, "Wonder how this one will taste?"

The last one I cooked was chopped up into small pieces and turned into chili. It came out fine, no different from deer meat. But I have a huge male waiting in the freezer and am apprehensive about disguising its sagey taste in any manner - chili, spaghetti, curry, whatever.

So when I read a column in Wyofile about a guy who has quit hunting sage grouse, it struck a chord with me. He decided to quit because of the table quality and their threatened future.

I had mentioned to a buddy last fall that I might quit shooting them. So it's been on my mind for a while, too. I'm not too worried about them going extinct. In Wyoming and Montana, there seems to be plenty of sage grouse.

But I kind of feel sorry for the big dummies. They're not crafty like pheasants. They don't explode into the air like Hungarian partridge. And they're so big, you would have to be blind to miss them.

It's easy to say now, in mid-February, that I won't shoot sage grouse again. But when a flock of 20 of them takes off in September, each one offering a target as big as Sputnik, will I have the willpower to take my finger off the trigger?