A noxious weed is robbing chukar hunters of prime hunting areas along the Snake River. The rapid spread of yellow starthistle is displacing everything from partridges to deer. And it’s fouling bird population surveys that have been conducted since the mid-1980.
Where the starthistle isn’t thick, chukar numbers appear to be better than last year, biologists say. Where the starthistle has spread, such as in Washington’s Couse Unit, numbers of chukars and deer appear to be down.
Idaho’s helicopter surveys late last month indicated that chukar numbers from Hellsgate State Park to Corral Creek are 36 percent higher than those of last year and 102 percent higher than the 1992-96 average.
The surveys contradict the findings of helicopter surveys conducted Aug. 25 on the Washington side of the Snake.
Washington biologists reported a decline of 23 percent compared to 1996 and a drop of 13 percent below the 1987-96 average.
Idaho and Washington wildlife biologists are puzzled by the big difference in findings of their helicopter surveys of chukars.
However, Pat Fowler, Washington Fish and Wildlife Department biologist for the southeast corner of the state says there’s a very high correlation between the spread of starthistle and the decline of birds.
“It has a lot to do with poor grazing practices,” he said. “Now that its taking hold, it’s spreading fast. It’s going to be an uphill battle to deal with it, even on department-managed lands on the Grande Ronde.”
Idaho’s partridge and quail seasons opened Sept. 20 and Washington’s partridge season will open Oct. 1.
Idaho biologist Jay Crenshaw said moderate weather conditions in early spring and dry, warm summer conditions apparently were a boost for survival of young chukars.
The survey along Idaho’s side of the Snake showed a 36 percent increase in the number of birds per square mile, a 110 percent increase in the number of groups of birds and a 113 percent increase in the number of groups per square mile.
On the other hand, the survey along the Salmon River from White Bird Creek to Billy Creek showed a drop of 3 percent in the number of birds seen. However, there was a 10 percent increase in the number of groups spotted.
“Lower numbers along the Salmon River compared to the Snake River may be related to encroachment of game-bird habitat by yellow starthistle,” Crenshaw said. The starthistle also is a problem on the Washington side.
Only the most optimistic and physically active sportsmen will want to hunt chukars and Huns in portions of Washington this fall.
The Columbia Basin’s chukar population dropped dramatically this year compared to the 1996 population, biologists said. An aerial survey indicated a decline of 72 percent.
Surveys on a designated route along the Snake River near Asotin found a drop of 23 percent from last season.
Hunters killed an estimated 8,452 chukars in southeast Washington last year, compared to 3,351 in 1995. This year’s kill is not likely to exceed 8,000, said Fowler.
The best year for hunting chukars was in 1980, when hunters bagged nearly 66,000 birds.
“Habitat conditions for chukars are deteriorating in southeast Washington,” he said. “due to the expansion of yellow starthistle and other noxious weeds. Poor land management practices, current and historical, are contributing greatly to this problem.
“The future for chukar populations in southeast Washington is poor.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Partridge seasons North Idaho: Sept. 20-Dec. 31. Eastern Washington: Oct. 1-Jan. 11.