CLARK COUNTY Chuck Cavanaugh is getting to be as rare as the birds he hunts.
I dont care whether the bird gets it or not, he said. So long as I have the good time.
That good time starts with 5 inches of new snow smothering the ground during a fall hunt. A 1988 Land Cruiser is cutting a trail through the powder. Its driver is younger than only the ridges rising around the ride.
Its a big expanse of country youve got to see, Cavanaugh said. Ive lived here half my life, and I havent seen all the country yet.
Cavanaugh has almost a century outside. He spends five days a week in the hills. His face is as weathered as the landscape, but his step is as sure as the sunrise. He credits fruit and fresh air for his endurance.
It wasnt until I passed 80 that I got wise, he said. Eat right. No sugar at all. Fruit and vegetable diet with a little salmon will keep you going for years.
He leaves an apple for lunch on the seat of his Toyota and steps out into the snow with a pocket full of shells. In his jacket and jeans, the well-worn hunter loads a 20-gauge shotgun with wrinkled hands.
His hunting partner is already out ahead of him.
This is the first time shes been in snow, he said. Shes smelling the birds in it so now shell want to go every time it snows.
Roxy is a 1-year-old terrier pup barely taller than the snowpack. She bounds like a bunny in the first fluff of the season, then suddenly stops and sticks her head in the snow. The wagging tail on her other end puts Cavanaugh on alert.
There are sage grouse in the brush. The birds flush. The historic hunter fires. The birds win.
I dont want more than one, Cavanaugh said. I hate to even shoot the one. I avoided one this time. I shot in the air past them.
One sage grouse. Thats the daily bag limit where Cavanaugh hunts.
Fifty years ago, he hunted the same ground and easily left with four or five birds.
I have seen real heavy timber in this area years ago and sage hens were thick. They were like a thundering cloud when they took off up here, he said. My first years up here there were very few hunters and hundreds of birds all around. When the fires come in, that terminated awful big bunches of birds.
The desert plant is painfully slow to recover from fire, and so are sage grouse. They depend on sagebrush year-round, and their numbers are declining as the sagebrush canopy shrinks.
Its pretty simple. Sage grouse need sagebrush, said Paul Atwood, Idaho Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. If the sagebrush goes away, there wont be any sage grouse.
The department recorded 313 sage grouse hunters at Eastern Idaho check stations during the weeklong hunt earlier this fall. Those hunters harvested 144 birds.
Thats down from 3,089 hunters and 3,711 birds in 1986. Sage grouse hunting is closed in 30 Idaho counties.
Eight of those are partial closures. Fourteen Idaho counties still have a hunt, but the daily bag limit is now one bird.
Cavanaugh makes the four-hour drive for that bird at least three times during his hunts. He spent more than $100 in gas. The expense for a single bird isnt worth it for most hunters.
Cavanaugh is not most hunters. Hes shooting for seven more years outside, and even though hes more miss than hit with his shotgun, the time and the expense are still well worth it to him.
Out in the hills every day dont hurt you a bit, Cavanaugh said.