- Associated Press - Friday, May 1, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota will not have a sage grouse hunting season in 2015 for the eighth straight year due to low numbers of the birds that are a candidate for the endangered list.

A spring survey found a record-low 30 males on six strutting grounds, according to the state Game and Fish Department. Last year, 31 males were counted on the same leks in the southwestern part of the state. The leks are where male birds conduct mating displays to attract females.

Sage grouse in the U.S. once numbered in the millions, but current estimates put the population between 200,000 and 500,000. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a court-imposed Sept. 30 deadline to decide whether to propose listing the bird as endangered.

The move has long been sought by conservationists, but officials in western states fear that protecting sage grouse habitat could limit ranching and energy development and production. Eleven states including North Dakota have launched voluntary effects to conserve sage grouse habitat in hopes of avoiding a federal listing.

The southwestern corner of North Dakota is on the edge of the sage grouse’s shrinking traditional range. The population of the birds in that area peaked at 542 males in 1953 and has steadily declined in the past three decades after a steep population drop that officials attributed to West Nile virus. Hunting was halted in the region in 2008.

Sage grouse live a long time but have a low reproduction rate, making population recovery a slow process, according to Aaron Robinson, upland game bird biologist for Game and Fish. Natural reproduction can’t keep up with natural mortality in North Dakota, and finding another state willing to move some sage grouse to North Dakota might be the only hope, he said.

However, there is potential for a successful nesting season this year because of abundant grass cover due to ample rainfall last summer, according to Robinson.

“The outlook for a favorable hatch this year looks optimistic for the limited number of birds we have in the state,” he said.

Even if a good hatch occurs, it is unlikely there will be a sage grouse hunting season in the near future, Game and Fish said.

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Follow Blake Nicholson on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/NicholsonBlake

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