By Angie Phillips and Kalen Taylor
Utah's population of greater sage-grouse is up 40 percent this year — a rise that could come as good news to hunters.
There are now an estimated 20,000 greater sage-grouse in the Beehive State, according to Terry Messmer, professor in the Wildland Resources Department at Utah State University. The grayish-brown bird, which has a dark belly and long, pointed tail feathers, inhabits sagebrush plains, foothills and mountain valleys.
About 1,000 permits — allow hunters to take a total of two birds of either sex — are issued annually, with those numbers increasing or decreasing with population size, according to Messmer.
The opportunity to harvest sage-grouse could end, though, if the birds were to be listed as endangered. Sage-grouse, which once occupied about a third of Utah's territory but now exists on about one-tenth of the state's land, have been a candidate for species protection since 2010.
Although sage-grouse in Utah aren't immediately at risk of being listed, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has shown active interest in protecting the birds. On Aug. 5, the service re-opened a period of public comment on its proposal to protect a distinct population of greater sage-grouse in California and Nevada.
In 2003, the the first strategic plan for the management of Sage Grouse in Utah was adopted by the Utah Wildlife Board. Its goals include protecting, maintaining, improving and enhancing sage-grouse populations and habitats in Utah.
Since these efforts have been in effect the population of sage-grouse has been cyclic, peaking and declining over a 10-year period, Messmer said.
So far, though, hunter Bryan Marlowe hasn't seen much of a difference.
“They’re so rare you hardly see them anyway," said Marlowe who, like Neilsen, is a student at Utah State. "They’re more like a perk to find if you’re hunting something else.”