Sam Stein moved to Wyoming for the public land.
He was a firefighter and paramedic in the suburbs of Chicago, yearning for a place to hunt closer than the next state over. So he Googled states with public land, and Wyoming popped up. He applied for jobs, and one week later moved to Lander.
That was three years ago.
Hunting and eating Wyoming’s varied game species has become a central part of his being. Of all the species he chases – mule deer, black bear, elk and white-tailed deer – birds are probably his favorite.
“I’ve always been connected to bird hunting and being out with your dog and man’s best friend,” he said. “It’s a really rewarding way of hunting.”
But bird hunters as a whole, those who chase pheasants and chukars or ducks and geese, rarely come together as a group to celebrate their passions. The Wyoming Wildlife Federation, working with hunters like Stein, are hoping to change that with their first film festival and storytelling series beginning June 14.
The six-hour event will begin with a wild game cookoff and then lead into stories by five speakers including Ronald Boehme of The Hunting Dog Podcast, Holly Heyser from California Waterfowl and Ed Arnett, chief scientist at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Intermixed with stories will be short bird-hunting films by Yeti, Project Upland and Northwoods Collective.
The money raised from Films of the Feathered will go to support sage grouse conservation in Wyoming – one of the last strongholds of the bird in the country.
“I hope that it gets more people involved specifically in sage grouse,” Stein said. “But I also hope it gets people connected more to the idea of conservation and that just buying a license isn’t enough.”
The event was the brainchild of Stein and Wyoming Wildlife Federation’s advocacy coordinator Jessi Johnson.
Johnson wanted a way for bird hunters to gather outside of the main seasons to reenergize over beers, food and stories. She also wanted to raise money for sage grouse.
“There’s not a lot of bird hunting networking despite Wyoming being a mecca,” Johnson said. “We are hoping to show them the amazing things we have and also how easy it is to lose that when looking at the greater sage grouse.”
Wyoming’s sage grouse populations are struggling, that’s no secret. The large, brown prairie bird has suffered from habitat loss from energy development and urban sprawl, infection from West Nile virus and tilled or sprayed sage brush steppe. Their conservation has been a flash point in national politics, after the Department of Interior changed a decades-long collaborative plan focused on sage grouse to one more directed toward energy dominance.
Environmental groups have sued in the past for grouse’s placement on the endangered species list, and the bird narrowly avoided placement.
Despite their rocky history, Wyoming still contains about 40 percent of the greater sage grouse in the country. It’s one of about half a dozen of states that still allows hunters to chase them in the field.
“If you want to hunt sage grouse,” said Tom Christiansen, retired sage grouse coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, “the best place to come is Wyoming.”
But hunting has also been controversial. If a species is on the verge of an endangered species listing, some question if we should be allowed to hunt it.
The answer, Christiansen said, is biologically, it doesn’t matter. Seasons are short enough – they run no more than 16 days at the end of each September – and bag limits so small, that highly regulated hunting should not cause population-level impacts.
And allowing people to chase them with shotguns, or hunt them with falcons, provides the bird with a constituency, he said, a group of people who care about the bird’s continued existence.
For Kirk Billings, hunting sage grouse is about the wide open landscape as much as the bird itself.
Billings, who works in environmental remediation, will be one of the storytellers at Films of the Feathered.
Working dogs in sage brush steppe means a hunter watches while the animal makes large, sometimes erratic loops before crossing a scent. Once found, grouse can be flighty and skittish and flush well out of shotgun range, but they can also hold so tight they explode at a hunter’s feet.
“They are these big, pretty birds with giant wings that are making a lot of noise and nine times out of 10 you don’t have a heart attack,” he said.
Does he worry about their future? Absolutely.
Habitat encroachment is driving down their numbers, and with them, other species that share their range from mule deer and pronghorn to song birds.
Stein feels similarly. He’s frustrated by the short seasons and ecological strains on the bird. He wishes their habitat was better, their numbers more stable.
But even if no hunting was allowed at all, they would still be his favorite bird.
“You drive past sage brush flats and think nothing is living out there,” he said. “And then you get out there and there’s an incredible covey of giant birds surviving in the middle of nowhere off of one thing: sage brush.”