The state of Wyoming is well known for its big game and trophy hunting. We’ve all seen tv shows and articles about the big bull elk hunt, mule deer buck, pronghorn or some trophy animal like mountain lion or bear.
Very few people ever think about coming to Wyoming, especially the western part, to just hunt birds. Some of my friends will probably give me hard time now that I’m exposing our “neighborhood” to out of state hunters. I’m not worried about the out of state hunters having too much impact on our birds. It is just too hard of a bird hunt only very few will enjoy and even less will come back.
Wyoming has three species of grouse.
Ruffed grouse in the mountains and forests, blue (also called dusky) higher up in the mountains and sage grouse spread throughout the state in the vast sage brush covered space.
This past hunting season(actually still ongoing) the weather played significant role. We had heavy snowpack last winter that melted gradually throughout the summer. There was really no rain to speak of. By the early to mid August all the snow was gone, even in the backcountry and the high mountains. The creeks, streams and rivers slowed down their flow significantly. Great time for fishing but I don’t fish.
The bird season started September first. We were ready to go. It took us two or three hard hikes to realize the birds will not be any further than 50-80 feet away from the nearest water. Easy enough, not really. If there is water in early September there was lot of water throughout the summer. Birds yes, heavy, dense vegetation to walk and work through also yes. Good shots non existent. We tried but only had nominal success. Then “the windstorm of century” happened and knocked all the leaves off of the trees and bushes in early October. The warm, dry weather was still keeping the birds near water but we could actually see them now. Next few hunts were epic. I’ve never seen so many grouse ever. We found blue grouse mixed in the same habitat as ruffed. Couple times we had to double check if those were really blues (and they were) because there was so many. This is not quail hunting, I hope people reading understand there is not many coveys with many birds. No, that’s not what Wyoming grouse hunt is. When I say many I mean three to four birds sometimes five to six but only in early season. Come mid to late October there are doubles but not often. You mostly flush out one at a time but you can find two or three single birds in the same area.
Having such a success was short lived. The snow started to come and changed the perfect grouse hunting conditions into winter hunting in matter of days. With 12-18 inches of snow on the ground the birds spend lot more time in the pine trees or taller willow bushes nesting. We try to find any bush that still has berries on and then look up in the trees. The grouse is up there but shots are difficult because of the thick trees and branches.
Blue grouse have moved high again to their more natural habitat.
These Wyoming grouse make you really earn it.
Getting around is getting harder and harder. I still want to grab one of CZ’s new all-retain shotguns and add a sling to it so I can use it while snowshoeing to get farther into the woods. Upland shotgun on a sling will allow me to snowshoe with hiking poles(necessity) on an approach. Then get out of my snowshoes, grab the gun and work the edge of the forest where dense trees prevent the snow getting too deep, for now.
Lots of walking/hiking is the common denominator in any grouse hunting attempt here in Wyoming where majority of sage grouse population can be found. The reason is these birds need incredible vast sage covered and uninterrupted space. This kind of habitat covers most of the of the state and lacks any kind of dense population and development. It is critical habitat for survival of this grouse species. Wyoming Wildlife Federation, CZ-USA and Project Upland teamed up for short film to raise awareness about the protection and restoration of sage grouse habitat. I believe things are looking up for sage grouse in Wyoming. Hunting season was extended two days from last year, from nine days to eleven. Another great example of restoring or improving habitat is removal of unnecessary barb wire fencing across Wyoming or putting markers on the wire itself to be more visible to these birds in flight. More of them die or get injured by barb wire than by hunting.
Cattle and sheep ranching is still big part of Wyoming economy and it is good to see cooperation between new age conservationists and old time conservationists, the ranchers.
We only got out couple times to hunt during the eleven day season and my focus was on introducing and mentoring young men to sage grouse hunting. Shooting the bird is not the hard part, there is no obstruction, wide open space covered with sage brush three feet at its highest. Terrain is gently rolling and you’re just trying to cover as much of it as you can. 8-10 mile days are not exception.
But nothing worth anything should come easily. That is the lesson of bird hunting ……or life in general.
One of the boys got his first sage grouse ever and at the end of the long hard day he said “I’m addicted to bird hunting”.