Sage grouse season closed last week.

For the second year in a row I didn’t get one. I didn’t even see one.

It wasn’t for lack of effort. I’ve been hunting more days than not since the upland bird season opened.

The country I hunt used to be heavily populated by sage grouse. There were at least 40 males on a lek there last April. But come September, the birds weren’t to be found.

I experienced the same thing last fall.

Sage grouse have been disappearing from their traditional haunts for some years now. Loss of habitat and West Nile virus are usually cited as the reason.

Where I hunt, the habitat has remained relatively unchanged for the past 15 years, so I suspect West Nile is the culprit.

Not many folks care. Few bird hunters target the big grouse, many derisively calling them “flying livers.” And they’re not apt to fly into the backyard bird feeder and attract attention, preferring instead remote, sage-covered country where their drab camouflage keeps them well hidden.

However, I worry it’s not camouflage, but something more nefarious, that’s keeping them out of sight.

I hunted three distinctly different places for sage grouse last month. I’d harvested birds at each spot as recently as three years ago, but this season found not a trace of the ancient gamebirds.

It’s possible the birds are simply at the low end of their population cycle, and their numbers will rebound. On this front I’d like to join the climate-change deniers who claim it will all be OK if we just wait long enough.

Sage grouse have already all but disappeared from a number of Western states. I doubt we’ll be hunting them here for many more years even though hunting is not the problem. In fact the only folks who really give a damn about sage grouse or even know what they are are hunters.

There still appear to be plenty of sharptail grouse around, although not as many as in previous years. I hope it’s just a low year in their cycle, and boom times will return, but I remember thinking the same thing about sage grouse a few years ago.

“They’ll be back,” I’d tell myself. “It’s just a down year.”

Now I’m not so sure.

If sage grouse are our canary and the prairie our coal mine — take note — we’re in trouble.

Parker Heinlein is at