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Published May 14, 2013, 09:00 AM

No sage grouse hunting in North Dakota for 6th straight year

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — For a sixth straight year, North Dakota will not have a sage grouse hunting season because the population of male birds is too small.

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — For a sixth straight year, North Dakota will not have a sage grouse hunting season because the population of male birds is too small.

State Game and Fish Department officials counted a record-low 50 males on 11 active strutting grounds, or leks, in early May. Last year, 72 males were counted on 12 active leks in the southwest. The leks are where male birds conduct mating displays to attract females.

"The most plausible reason why the population declined so dramatically this year was the severe drought the southwest experienced last summer," said Game and Fish upland game bird biologist Aaron Robinson. "Sage grouse live in very arid dry areas, and in severe drought and heat, chicks are not able to find insects, which account for almost 100 percent of their diet."

The dry conditions last summer also led to limited grass cover, reducing the outlook for a good hatch this year.

"We have learned from our recent research conducted in North Dakota that sage grouse rely heavily on residual grass cover for concealment during nesting season," Robinson said. "Without grass cover, mortality of females on nests increases and the probability that the nest will be depredated also increases."

Sage grouse hunting was halted in North Dakota in 2008 for the first time in nearly half a century after a steep drop in the bird population that wildlife officials said likely was due to the West Nile virus. North Dakota's sage grouse management plan calls for a minimum of 100 males before a hunting season can take place.

Sage grouse are North Dakota's largest native upland game bird. They are found in the extreme southwestern part of the state, primarily in Bowman and Slope counties.

Sage grouse also have declined in other Western states as habitat has been lost. Federal officials are considering naming the birds an endangered species.

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