Addressing a roomful of bird dog enthusiasts last week, organizer Scott Johnson emphasized what the diverse group has in common: "We like bird dogs. We like birds. And we like to deliberately train dogs to be good hunters."

That neatly sums up the working philosophy of the West Slope Bird Dogs Club, a group of hunters who gather regularly to work their canines and enhance upland bird conservation. The group meets monthly, primarily at the Black Canyon Wing & Clay Club -- a sprawling 730-acre hunting preserve southeast of Delta. Black Canyon is commercially licensed by the Colorado Division of Wildlife and since the preserve is a private enterprise, hunting there is not governed by traditional hunting seasons. The preserve's season runs from mid-September to mid-March. Black Canyon has been operating since 1998. Patrick Sullens is the owner.

Though the Black Canyon location is the club's primary site, the group occasionally holds training days at Escalante State Wildlife Area in Delta, Stengel Gun Range in Hotchkiss, and other preserve venues.

Scott Johnson, who lives in Paonia, works as a forester in the Montrose Field Office of the Colorado State Forest Service. About two years ago, Johnson, Sullens, Kevin Parks of Paonia, and a half-dozen other Delta County residents talked about forming a bird dog training club. Interest extended to Grand Junction where Bob Schweikhardt got involved and to Montrose where John Furca expressed interest. Soon a dozen hunters and 15 dogs were actively involved, with participants coming from throughout the Western Slope including Craig, Durango and Summit County. Since forming, the club has held about 20 days of training activities.

In addition to hands-on, deliberate training of bird dogs, the club also participates in upland game bird conservation projects such as enhancing habitat. Western Colorado is home to a wide variety of upland game birds including pheasants, Gambel's quail, chukar partridge, ptarmigan, sharp-tailed grouse, blue grouse, and greater sage grouse. The threatened Gunnison sage grouse is present in the region and these birds are out of bounds for hunting but club conservation work also benefits this protected species.

The deliberate training of bird dogs helps the animal become a working companion for the hunter. In stages, and with reinforcement, the dogs are taught to perform a series of essential functions: 1) to search for birds; 2) to hold a found bird steady with a pointing maneuver or, if the dog breed is not compatible with pointing behavior, to present the bird by flushing it; and 3) to retrieve the game.

A well-trained dog will perform these steps seamlessly and with enthusiasm and reliability. And, of course, the dog must not be rattled by the sound of gunfire. During training if a step is missed or performed incorrectly, the bird is sometimes not shot and the dog does not receive the reward of being allowed to retrieve the bird. The hunters and dogs train using live pen-raised birds which are set out for the dog to find. Johnson likens it to learning the basics of angling in a lake full of stocked fish.

To learn more about the West Slope Bird Dogs Club email westslopebirddogs@gmail.com or call 218-750-2123. For further information about the Black Canyon Wing & Clay Club, call 970-874-7195 or visit its webpage: bcwandc.com.

[Photos by Don Benjamin]

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