Despite recent declines in sage grouse in northeast Wyoming, a three-day hunting season will continue this fall.

Dozens of people came to the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission meeting Wednesday protesting a proposal to close the sage grouse hunting season in northeast Wyoming. After hours of debate, largely from falconers and other groups, the commission ultimately voted to keep the season open.

Game and Fish biologists proposed closing the season because of declines in the population and because some members of the public worry hunting a species that could be placed on the endangered species list isn’t a good idea, said Tom Christiansen, sage grouse program coordinator for Game and Fish.

The number of leks, or sage grouse breeding grounds, have declined from 249 in 2007 to 169 in 2011. In 2011, the number of males on the leks was at the lowest number it has been since 1995, said Tom Ryder, assistant chief of the wildlife division for Game and Fish.

In Ryder’s opinion sage grouse numbers in that area are dangerously low. One major outbreak of something like the West Nile virus could wipe out that segment of the population. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will look at sage grouse again in 2015, and changing hunting seasons is the only tool the Game and Fish Department has to help the population.

However, the population has not been reduced to a minimum viable population. That means biologically, it can withstand some harvest, Ryder said.

A recent study by the University of Montana, commissioned by the Bureau of Reclamation in Montana and Wyoming, listed the West Nile virus and energy development as stressors on the population.

Commissioner Carrie Little believes predation by raptors and other predators is one of the main reasons for the decline.

About a dozen people spoke about the possible closure at the meeting and only Jim Magagna, president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, supported the change. If other groups such as the agriculture and energy industry have to make changes for sage grouse survival, hunters should also be willing to make consolations, he said.

Most others said the proposal to end hunting was based on politics and not biology.

“Predators are an issue, but habitat is a greater issue,” said Jill Morrison, a community organizer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council.

“If you don’t have the habitat, you don’t have the species.”

To sustain a viable population, the commission should focus not on changing the hunting season but on pressuring the Bureau of Land Management and area industry to reclaim sage grouse habitat, she said.

Kevin Hurley, conservation coordinator for the Wild Sheep Foundation, read a letter signed by 20 groups in the American Wildlife Conservation Partnership. The letter strongly opposed the closure, saying if it didn’t benefit the bird biologically, it shouldn’t be done.

Others worried the closure would set a precedent that seasons could be ended because of appearances instead of biology. Instead of closing the season, craft a solution that includes predator management and mosquito abatement, said Bob Wharff, executive director with the Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife-Wyoming.

Kenneth Sterner, president of the Wyoming Falconers Association, said the closure could create a domino effect, leading to shutting down other areas in the state. The number of birds killed by falconers is small.

Ultimately, only Commissioner Ed Mignery voted for the closure.

Reach Open Spaces reporter Christine Peterson at 307-266-0524 or christine.peterson@trib.com.

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