Our bird season opens tomorrow. Over the past 15 seasons or so it's become sort of a tradition for us to open the season chasing sage chickens.
I can't recall ever discussing why sage chickens, when we could put mountain grouse, sharptails, Huns, even doves, at the head of the opening day docket, But a big part of it is close to home, big , empty, public land, no hunters (we rarely see another hunter, opening day or otherwise), we enjoy eating sage chicken (I know, I know most of the rest of you consider "coyote bait" or worse, your mistake but why beat a dead horse) but mostly in deference to Kate the Wirehair's obvious love affair with our biggest grouse. Yes, she did point 13 other upland birds during her 12 season run and being a bird dog and all it does seem pretty silly of me to say she "loved" sage chickens above all. Like hell man, what makes you think your bird dog is any different than you who would be lying not admitting the best bird is the one you happen to have lined up in your sights at the moment. Right...But...
consider the long drive home following several weeks gunning eastern Montana and North Dakota where she put on clinics at just about every stop...Huns, sharpies, roosters. Where it seemed each morning she leaped out the camper door wearing a perpetual doggie grin and that stare down you just could not translate any other way...C'mon boss, drag ass and where to next, we got birds to kill and time's a wastin'.
Now on the long drive home, lying between us on the front seat head up, somehow awake, alert as if we hadn't yet hunted a lick; silently staring down the center-line of the highway, we suddenly pass from endless wheat and alfalfa into wall-to-wall sagebrush...You guessed it, the little bitch starts bawling...who-o-o, who-o-o...stop the damn truck you fool, sage chickens, let me at 'em! As I say, "Sage Chicken Certified."
Kate's been gone now a couple but Annie's on deck, ready once again to pinch hit for big sister. And in the morning we will head out somewhere in the vast sagebrush sea, surrounds our little town and blankets much of southwest Montana. But this time around will be different. Caving under pressure from the usual special interest groups--livestock, developers, miners, environmental, save-the-planet, whackos, you know the culprits--and the politically motivated USFWS wielding its considerable big stick--threatened listing of yet another endangered species--Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks decided to toss a bone and of course, as we all know, the easiest bone to pick up and toss is, you guessed it again, the Hunter. Thus...
...season kaput in something like 14 counties,cleave in half what's left...in other words instead of a 60 day season, take 30 and be glad of it...And no, I'm not stupid, realize full well it could have been far worse. But I'm not buying, not for a minute, shutting down the season for good, as was the original proposal, denying a small handful hunters, who kill an admitted handful birds annually will make even a small drop in a badly leaking bucket.
Until the powers that be stand up, get the guts, if you prefer, and address the real issue--habitat degradation--sage chicken populations will continue to plummet. We hunters know all too well once a hunting opportunity is lost it is highly unlikely to ever re-open; lacking hunters who is left out there to champion their comeback...with apologies to Thomas McGuane, should sage chickens be lost, smash the state!