Numbers for sage grouse hunting season show the bird's dwindling population may be on a steeper decline than earlier estimates indicated. The season went from Sept. 15 through Sept. 21.
A Hailey land preservation group sees this as another indicator that this chicken-sized bird should get protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, and a court decision is expected soon on their challenge to get the bird listed.
"We've seen the lowest harvest in forty years," said David Parrish, regional supervisor for the Magic Valley Region of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
Officials are not sure why the bag numbers were down, but West Nile virus and this summer's fires, which destroyed critical habitat, could be factors.
The birds were first identified by Lewis and Clark, and 200 years ago their numbers were estimated at well over 1 million birds compared to estimates of fewer than 500,000 today. As their name implies the birds live in sagebrush ecosystems and rely on sagebrush for cover for mating and a major portion of their diet.
"Without sagebrush they are not very successful at reproducing," said Parrish. "We've lost significant reproducing area in the Murphy Complex Fire."
That fire burned in July and August in southern Idaho and northern Nevada.
Parrish said his department counts leks, or breeding areas for the birds, in spring, and numbers plugged into their long-term database are not good.
"We've noticed a downward trend this spring," he said.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service rejected a petition in 2005 seeking Endangered Species Act protections for the bird.
The Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project filed the petition to try and get the bird listed as endangered under that act, said Executive Director Jon Marvel. A ruling is expected from U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill before the end of September, Marvel said.
Despite the decision not to list, Fish and Wildlife clearly endorses the long-term preservation of the grouse's favorite sagebrush haunts, the agency said in a news release.
"I commend federal and state agencies as well as the local working groups for their current efforts to maintain or improve sagebrush habitat and encourage them to continue to move forward with the new plans to develop and implement conservation strategies throughout the grouse's range," agency director Steve Williams said in the release.
In addition to West Nile virus and what Marvel sees as wildfires possibly driven by global warming, oil and gas drilling in Wyoming is destroying more grouse habitat, he believes. The decision not to list "becomes more and more unreasonable in light of those negative impacts," he said.
His organization wants the court to order Fish and Wildlife to do a new "status review," a legal step that would require the agency to collect current information from all sources on bird populations and habitat conditions and make a new recommendation.
Idaho Fish and Game is against listing the bird, Parrish said, arguing that control is better left in the hands of local agencies than in Washington, D.C.
But Marvel claims that is a misnomer and says that local branches of federal land management agencies would oversee the management of any endangered listing.
But if numbers of the large birds are in a downward spiral then that could beg the question of the recent hunt.
"Our hunting season in southern Idaho right now is mostly symbolic," Parrish said.
During the just completed season through Sept. 20, in which hunters were allowed one bird per day, hunters north of the Snake River bagged .19 birds per hunter with 21 hours needed for each bird taken, according to Fish and Game figures. Hunters had a harder time in Gem, Lincoln, Blaine, Camas and Elmore counties. South of the Snake hunters averaged .6 birds per hunter with 5.3 hours needed for each bird.
A 2006 Fish and Game revision of statewide grouse management reaffirmed local conservation efforts by local working groups, Alison Squier, head of the North Magic Valley working group, said in an e-mail. That group was formed in March 2007 and is just getting organized.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.