Prairie Grouse Primer 2022

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Prairie grouse prospects get better the farther north you look

This time last summer, this state-by-state report was a tough one for a prairie grouse hunter to stomach. Drought at various levels (some of those levels to the downright extreme) had grassland habitat and grouse numbers challenged across the Great Plains — north to south, east to west.

While we can’t quite say “What a difference a year makes,” the news is better over much of the grouse range in 2022. But not all of it. As the reporting came in for Prairie Grouse Primer 2022, the trend became clear: The father north you go in the grouse range, the more normal the rain pattern was this spring and summer, and the better the habitat responded. That should equal more birds.

Of course, the grouse haven’t disappeared in Kansas and Nebraska. And there won’t be a bird under every prairie rose bush in the Dakotas or Montana. Local conditions can and do vary — for better, for worse.

Prairie grouse hunting takes effort, work, legs, miles. And if you are real prairie grouse hunter, or want to be, you’re not afraid of that. In fact, you embrace it.

Go.

Tom Carpenter, Editor – Prairie Grouse Primer 2022


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Prairie Grouse Primer 2022: Idaho

Idaho’s prairie grouse prospects improve for fall 2022

By Jack Hutson

Idaho wilted in the drought of 2021. However, with strong legs and a good dog, there were enough prairie grouse last fall to go around. What is this fall’s forecast? Let’s find out.

Michelle Kemner, the Idaho Department of Fish & Game’s (IDFG) Prairie Grouse Biologist, is cautiously optimistic: “Sharp-tailed grouse lek counts are up 6 percent compared to 2021, but that should be taken with a grain of salt due to limited sampling.”

Matt Proett, IDFG Regional Biologist, provides further commentary, “Historical lek data are a bit difficult to maintain because these staging areas are mostly in CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) and shift as these areas go back into production.”

Idaho’s winter was mild and spring rains seemed to make up for the lack of snowpack. Kemner speculates, “Spring precipitation provided good nesting and brood-rearing cover; the outlook for sharp-tailed grouse should be good to excellent. Sage grouse are also on an upward trend, and if timing of spring precipitation did not hinder nest success, it should also be a good year for sage grouse.”

As part of the grouse monitoring process, a tag system is used to hunt sage grouse in Idaho. The state has been divided into 12 zones, with each zone having a limited quota and maximum of two tags per hunter. It is very important for prospective hunters to research this, for the tags are only good for one specific zone. Kemner adds this warning: “In some areas the species can overlap and one or the other may not be open for hunting. Be sure of your target!”

If you’re hunting for sharptails, Kemner suggests looking for areas of taller grass and forb cover. She goes on to say, “If you can’t find them in grasslands adjacent to farmed ground, look for them in shelterbelts, small shrub patches surrounding grassy areas, or in riparian areas with good shrub cover.”

Looking for mature male sage grouse? Kemner offers this: “Bull sage grouse are typically found on the edge of plateaus, further from water sources compared to hens with broods.”

Regional Range & Wildlife Conservation Biologist for Pheasants Forever and avid grouser, Jacob Northuis, uses a tactic that begins about a quarter-mile away from water sources and moves in ever-tightening circles until grouse are located. “Early in the season, sage grouse should be in the proximity of water. Later, try hunting south-facing slopes early in the morning to catch them sunning for warmth,” Northuis advises.

Kemner finishes with this very sound advice, as well: “If the weather is hot, look for sage grouse in the shade of taller sagebrush. Better yet, wait for cooler weather to save your pup!” That advice goes for sharptailers too: Look for shrubby habitat when the sun beats warm.


GROUSE SEASON DETAILS

Each sage grouse tag costs $22.75 for residents and $74.25 for nonresidents and sales began August 1. Sage grouse season will run September 17 through October 31. A sharp-tailed grouse permit is required for the season that runs October 1 thru 31. The cost is $5.75 for residents and $17.75 for nonresidents for the sharptail-only permit that can be purchased any time. For more information, check Idaho’s upland rules here.


Jack Hutson is a pointing dog consultant/trainer, writer, and vagabond upland bird hunter/flyfisher from Lewiston, Idaho.

Prairie Grouse Primer 2022: Kansas

Kansas greater prairie chickens okay, longterm trend concerning

By Greg Breining

Prairie chickens are tricky to count. Unlike pheasants and quail, they don’t reliably show us along roadsides, so they don’t show up in late-summer brood surveys. That leaves counts of females and displaying males on spring leks, which Kansas conducts along predetermined routes that have been run, in some cases, since 1963, says Kent Fricke, small game coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (KDWP).

By that measure, he says, “Overall things look, I guess, okay.”

Jeff Prendergast, small game specialist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, injects a bit more optimistic. He says roadside surveys of pheasants can provide insight into prairie chicken numbers because pheasants and chickens have similar nesting chronology and weather requirements. By that measure, chicken numbers may be pretty good. “Preliminary observations for pheasants have been better than expected,” Prendergast says. “Last year success rates in the region were good, so between carryover and with some production I would expect good opportunities again this year.”

Even so, Kansas prairie chickens are swimming against a tide of slowly declining numbers. Says Fricke, “Since the 1980s we’ve seen a continual slow rate of decline in those populations, primarily due to two very different factors.”

The factors: Too much fire and not enough fire.

In much of the state, woody plants, primarily eastern red cedar, are invading grasslands. Chickens don’t tolerate vertical structures that serve as perches for hawks, whether they are trees or power towers or wind turbines. As these structures proliferate, chickens move elsewhere.

On the other hand, in the tallgrass prairie of the Flint Hills, landowners are real firebugs, burning millions of rangeland acres annually. That solves the tree problem, but annual burning leaves little nesting cover for prairie chickens.

“While annual burning is great for keeping trees out of the landscape and keeping open grasslands, it also removes vegetation and nesting structure at the exact time of nesting,” says Fricke. Ideally, landowners would burn sections of property every three to five years. “The key to that is you’re not burning everything at once,” he says. “So if you have a patchwork on the landscape of not burned and recently burned, then you have the ingredients for a good prairie chicken population.”

Land management aside, weather didn’t hurt chickens, Fricke says. The cold, wet weather of early spring abated as the birds nested and pulled off hatches. “I think the Flint Hills and the Smokey Hills are going to be okay.” The exception is the drought-prone west. “The further west you go, the drier and crispier it’s been this year. I’m not expecting much in production in the northwest portion of the state.”

Fricke says he’s still crunching numbers for this year’s upland bird forecast, which will be posted soon on the department’s website.

Where does that leave hunters this year?

The best bet for most hunters without special access to private land will be the Smoky Hills in north-central Kansas. It’s a diverse mix of grass and cropland with a lot of access through the Walk-in Hunter Access (WIHA) Program. Says Fricke, “For hunters that’s obviously a good combination.”

Second choice would be the Flint Hills. Despite the fire issues, there are reliable numbers of birds. There are fewer WIHAs, but still some, including some large ones. “Certainly knocking on doors and getting permission from individual landowners can be an option as well,” says Fricke.

Finally, there’s the northwest, otherwise known as the Northern High Plains. “It’s probably the only place we’ve seen some recent small but some increases in prairie chicken populations,” says Fricke. But be careful to avoid hunting chickens in the west-central and southwestern portion of the state, closed to protect lesser prairie chickens.

Fricke advises would-be chicken hunters not to make the mistake of looking for chickens in pheasant cover. Chickens may use that heavy cover for nesting. But come fall, they inhabit higher ground with shorter, thinner cover. “They are very much more a visual species than pheasants and quail,” he says. Try to stay out of sight and pop over the tops of hills to approach them within range.

By watching roosting cover early and late in the day, it’s possible to determine where and when coveys fly out to feed in grain fields. “When they do that they can often be patterned,” Fricke says. Then you can hide along fences and ditches and pass-shoot as you would doves or waterfowl.


GROUSE SEASON DETAILS

In addition to a resident ($27.50) or nonresident ($97.50) license, hunters will need a $2.50 prairie chicken permit.

Season: September 15 through January 31, 2023

Daily bag: 2

Possession: 8

Remember, there’s no open season for prairie chickens in west-central and southwest Kansas, to protect the threatened lesser prairie chicken. Check the KDWP upland page for a boundary map.


Greg Breining and his English cocker Roscoe wander a wide swath of upland bird country every fall.

Prairie Grouse Primer 2022: Minnesota

Welcome to the sleeper state for prairie grouse

By Tom Carpenter

I am as guilty of it as any good Minnesota uplander: Ignoring the North Star state’s sharptails for more “romantic” spots to the west. This may be a year to change that tide, though I am a dedicated aficionado of Minnesota’s (limited to residents and by draw only) prairie chicken hunt.


Kemek Notes

“Last winter had minimal impact on sharp-tailed grouse,” reports Blane Kemek, Northwest Region Wildlife Manager for Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “In fact, the amount and consistency of last winter’s snowfall helped in many ways by creating perfect snow-roosting conditions for sharptails to better escape predators and for seeking shelter from inclement weather events.”

What were spring nesting conditions like? “While warm spring weather came late,” says Kemek, “nesting conditions were mostly favorable across sharp-tailed grouse range in Minnesota, with the possible exception of the far northwest (Kittson County), where more rain fell. Even so, conditions eventually improved, which favors ground nesting birds such as sharptails.”

Of course, I inquired on how the hatch and brood-rearing season has progressed. “So far so good!” says Kemek. “DNR Wildlife staff have reported observing encouraging numbers of broods while conducting August roadside counts and conducting other field activities.”

After last year’s drought, habitat conditions are on very uplander’s mind. Here’s what Kemek says.

“Habitat conditions are steadily improving across northwest Minnesota’s sharp-tailed grouse range due to many reasons:”

» Outdoor Heritage Funding from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Act to fund brushland mowing, prescribed fire, grazing projects and more

» Key land acquisitions made possible by partners such as Pheasants Forever and the Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society

» Habitat improvement and enhancement partner projects with Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society, The Nature Conservancy, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Minnesota Deer Hunters Association and others

» And more awareness and appreciation by the public, all helping sharptails continue to do well in northwestern Minnesota.”

“Kittson County continues to be a key sharp-tailed grouse hunting destination, as vast tracts of brushland habitat exist there,” says Kemek. “Even so, good sharptail numbers and habitat can be found throughout the Crookston area north to Thief River Falls, Karlstad and Lancaster, and east to Roseau, Thief Lake area, Red Lake WMA, Warroad and Baudette. Hundreds of thousands of public hunting land can be found everywhere in northwest Minnesota — state wildlife management areas, national wildlife refuges (check regulations for open areas) and waterfowl production areas among them.


Wollin Report

No Minnesota prairie grouse report is complete without notes from Jason Wollin, Wildlife Manager for the Minnesota DNR in Karlstad.

“Winter was long with a lot of snow/wind events,” says Wollin. “But we still we saw good numbers of grouse on leks this spring.”

Speaking of spring: “I think that we had tough nest conditions early on,” says Wollin, “with cold and flooding. Conditions improved though, and I think that nesting still happened. I would guess that early nests failed, but later broods have had some success.”

As for habitat conditions, “We did get conditions last winter to allow us to mow some brush to re-open some great areas,” says Wollin. “Even better, we were able to complete some prescribed fire this spring. We hope to get some fall burning in too. There is a great mix of grass and brush out there.”

“The Karlstad work area has always had great numbers for sharptails,” Wollin concludes. “I guess that I haven’t noticed more or fewer birds than usual, so I would say that we are average. I have been told by a number of hunters over the years that Kittson county is the best place to hunt sharptails. No doubt there is plenty of opportunity up here to get out and enjoy the outdoors.”


Hier Thoughts

I always check in with Ross Hier of Crookston, retired Wildlife Manager of the Crookston Minnesota DNR wildlife office, contributing artist to PF publications (and many other venues), and prairie chicken enthusiast bar none.

“Prairie chicken counts are down in the northern range but generally stable in the central and southern reaches,” says Hier. “It is notable that survey conditions were extremely windy (the windiest participants could ever recall) which made counts very challenging to get this year.”

“Sharptail counts continue to increase south of highway 2, as far south as Lac qui Parle county,” he adds. That’s good news for the birds, but remember that sharptails can only be hunted north of highway 2 in Minnesota, to protect prairie chickens.

“April was cold, windy and stormy with numerous heavy rains,” says Hier when asked about spring. “That probably pushed nesting season back for the birds.”

“That weather probably reduced insect counts for brood-rearing” he adds, “but by mid-June the heat teamed up with all the moisture to make lush vegetation, and insect populations exploded. It should have been a good summer for brood-rearing.”

“The June rains delayed some haying in northwestern Minnesota,” concludes Hier, and that bonus time should have contributed some extra broods from hayfields. Northwest Minnesota is cattle country too, and well-managed pastures can produce birds as well.


SEASON DETAILS

Minnesota’s sharp-tailed grouse season opens September 17 and closes November 30. The daily limit is 3 sharptails with a possession limit of 6. Check out details, and a map of the open sharptail zone, on the Minnesota DNR’s grouse page.

Prairie chicken tags for the residents-only season (2 bird limit for the season) have been drawn.


Tom Carpenter and his little pointing doggy Lark are always a little sad when pheasant season comes around because that means their sojourns for prairie grouse are mostly over for another year. But they get over it fast.

Prairie Grouse Primer 2022: Nebraska

Dry conditions continue to challenge Nebraska grouse

By Anthony Hauck

Nebraska's breeding population of prairie grouse — sharp-tailed grouse and greater prairie chickens — has been down in recent years. Expanding drought conditions as this summer has progressed are extinguishing hopes of 2022 being a comeback year.

John Laux, the Upland Habitat and Access Program Manager with the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission, reports that as of mid-August, nearly half of the state is experiencing severe to extreme drought, including much of the core crossover range of the Sandhills region in north-central Nebraska, the large, intact grassland where both species are found.

Laux says the northern portion of the Sandhills lost out in the rain lottery, but this fabled prairie expanse shouldn’t be a complete write-off. “The western and southeastern portions of the Sandhills have fared slightly better and brood observations have been more common in these regions of the state. Brood ages have varied indicating some production both early and late in the nesting season,” Laux said.

From his central Nebraska town of Ord, Ben Wheeler, a Coordinating Wildlife Biologist with Pheasants Forever, says habitat levels are down, and that the drought — nature — has doubly affected the nurture of grasslands.

“This was one of those years where our prescribed fire productivity was way down,” he said, “Producers were either not comfortable burning, or the issuance of burning permits was limited because of fire danger conditions.”

Before brood surveys ever begin, Wheeler says the bug survey — how many times you need to wipe your windshield —can be a crude-but-reliable indicator of how stocked the cupboards are for hatchlings. “I haven’t seen a whole lot of bug production, those soft-bodied insects that chock need, this year.”

To survive a drought, grouse will move to where cover and food are most readily available, and with the spigot shut off, Laux says that will be near remaining water. “Many shallow wetlands and the fringes of larger wetlands throughout the Sandhills have dried up, but they remain very lush and productive compared to some of the surrounding uplands. Birds will key in on these areas early in the (hunting) season to find insects and other food resources with high moisture content.”

Wheeler says his state’s early prairie grouse opener (September 1 annually) means it’s a practical guarantee to be hot and challenging-bordering-on-dangerous for dogs. Down year or not, his early season upland routes always include these built-in wetland rest stops.

If there’s an upshot to a “down” year, Wheeler says it’s the opportunity to sharpen his learning curve. “When you’re bumping grouse in a high productivity year, you don’t learn as much. But when you hunt birds in a drought year and can find birds when the population is really challenged, you’re finding anchor areas that they absolutely need. This helps me as an ecologist and as a hunter.” When he finally finds grouse in such situations, he pauses an extra while to build a mental image of what really stands out. “Does the grass look different? Was there better shading cover?”

The other upshot is that a report like this will keep many hunters away. That means more space for you. There are still grouse out there to hunt.

One constant in the Sandhills is public access, the combination of five state and federal parcels — the Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest, Valentine and Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuges, Bessey Ranger District National Forest and Merritt Reservoir Wildlife Management Area — combining for about 330,000 acres open to grouse prospecting. Across the prime grouse range, more than 500,000 acres of publicly accessible lands are available.

Nebraska’s prairie grouse season runs through January 31, 2023. The daily limit is three birds, with a possession limit of 12. Note that limits are aggregate: Any combination of sharptails and prairie chickens totaling that number.


Anthony Hauck follows his little field-bred English cockers, famous Sprig and upstart Ruth, across prairie grouse country every fall.

Prairie Grouse Primer 2022: North Dakota

Weathering dusty drought to prairie bloom, sharptails on the rise in North Dakota

By Anthony Hauck

The habitat headline in North Dakota is often one of bust to boom — or better yet, bloom — in one year.

“The prairies took a 180-degree turn for the better this summer,” says Jesse Kolar, Upland Game Supervisor with the North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDGF).

Coming off a drought-riddled 2021 season in which 15,762 grouse hunters (down 21 percent from 2020) harvested 45,732 sharp-tailed grouse (down 47 percent from 2020), that’s the good news grouse hunters were hoping for.

Kolar says consistent rain events this summer helped put last year’s dry spell in the rearview mirror. “Wet conditions after a season of extreme drought spurred a flush of grass and forb growth,” he says. “Some grazed pastures have vegetation as tall as CRP tracts, albeit with much more diversity.”

As of early August, the U.S. Drought Monitor showed none of North Dakota’s sharp-tailed grouse range categorized in any drought level.

Emily Spolyar, Pheasants Forever’s Precision Ag and Conservation Specialist in southwest North Dakota and a serious prairie grouse chaser in her own right with her pups Riggins and Bridger, reports the timely rain events have helped insects flourish, meaning an ample supply of bugs for both broods and adult birds to feast on.

From her post amidst prime grouse country, Spolyar says her early scouts have revealed outstanding cover and big, healthy broods. “There’s been some variance in the ages of them, but that’s what I’ve seen —big broods,” she says.

That age variance is to be expected, and hunters shouldn’t be surprised when the season opens on Saturday, September 10 to come across younger broods. “Early nesting conditions were not benefited by this year’s growth, but the cover should benefit the latter half of nesting season and most of the brood-rearing season,” Kolar says.

Having those coveys dispersed in this autumn’s substantial cover should also help the hunting success this year. “Sparse cover last year made for hard hunting,” Spolyar says. “The birds got into big groups, and that meant lots of eyes that made getting close nearly impossible.”

North Dakota counties last season with the highest percentage of the sharptail harvest were Mountrail, Burleigh, Ward, Divide and Kidder. Going to where bird numbers held highest in a drought year isn’t a bad hunting plan, but Kolar says grouse densities in his state’s Prairie Pothole Region have been higher than the 10-year averages, even surpassing the densities of the state’s southwestern region. “If we get a good hatch, we should have average-to-good sharptail numbers in the eastern two-thirds of North Dakota this year,” he says.

Both Kolar and Spolyar point out that finding brush — the sharptail is actually a brushland-dependent species —- can be the real key to getting into birds. “Their fall habitat normally consists of hillsides with brushy patches,” Kolar says. “Snowberry, buffaloberry, chokecherry, skunk sumac, Russian olive or alder thickets are also all good places to check out.”

Hunters doing research may have seen that North Dakota’s spring sharp-tailed grouse census indicated a 13 percent decrease in the number of male grouse counted as compared to 2020. However, Kolar says his agency’s grouse brood survey — publicly available the first week of September — will paint a more accurate (and likely positive) picture of the fall outlook, by taking into account the changing landscape and the summer’s grouse reproduction.

The NDGF grouse brood survey results will be publicly available the first week of September. The season opens September 10 and runs through Sunday, January 1, 2023. The daily limit is three birds, with a possession limit of 12 birds.


Anthony Hauck follows his little field-bred English cockers, famous Sprig and upstart Ruth, across North Dakota’s grouse country every fall.

Prairie Grouse Primer 2022: Montana

Big Sky country looking better for prairie grouse hunting this year.

By Jack Hutson

Montana’s summer of 2021 was plagued with grasshoppers and extreme drought. Did Montana’s Big Sky open up with thirst-quenching and habitat-friendly spring rains this year? How are sharptails and sage grouse doing under those big skies? To find out, and with high hopes and fingers crosse, I contacted regional experts from Montana’s three primary prairie regions.


REGION 4 / CENTRAL

Region 4 experienced incredibly variable precipitation events during the winter and through spring. “You could hit a rainstorm that causes you to pull over and wait it out and a mile down the road it will be bone dry,” declares Matt Strauch, Montana’s newly appointed Upland Game Bird Specialist in the region. Strauch continues, “There remain areas still suffering from the effects of last year’s drought. Research this year’s weather data and look, first, for stretches that received decent amounts of precipitation.”

Matt may be new to the job but he isn’t new to the region, having been employed locally by Pheasants Forever prior to gaining this position for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP).

As for finding prairie birds, Strauch uses this analogy: “It’s a bit like looking for holding water as a flyfisher. Learn what habitat conditions holds the birds; during what time and weather.” Indeed, learning habitat vegetation types and preferable terrain will take hunters to the “next-level” in regard to finding specific wild game species.

The information polled from regional biologists seems to show that sharptail and sage grouse numbers are better than last year but still remain lower than the long-term average. Describing a recent day in the field, Strauch tells of sage grouse brood encounters in fair numbers and clutch size. “The birds are there, look for good habitat and you will find them,” Strauch assures.

When it comes to that terrain, Strauch suggests doing a little homework: “Use Google Earth or onX Hunt software to look for corridors that connect tracts of good habitat types such as feeding, loafing and roosting areas. Noting the time and weather conditions, this research will reduce indecision and field prospecting while increasing productive hunting.”


REGION 6 / NORTHEAST

How was the winter? “Winter was relatively mild with some late snows in April. In general, the carry-over of birds should have been good,” says Ken Plourde, Regional Game Bird Specialist for Montana FWP.

Early into spring there was still residual concern of a drought hang-over. Last year’s drought and grasshopper infestation took a heavy toll on the vegetation needed to get prairie grouse through the winter. Nesting potential was severely reduced until May’s precipitation turned out to be much better than expected and seemed to shake the vegetation from its slumber. “West-region is still suffering from the effects of last year’s drought but the central and eastern sections of the Northeast are responding well to spring conditions,” Plourde adds.

Partially funded by Pheasants Forever, Heather Brower of the USDA’S Natural Resources Conservation Service in Scobey, Montana agrees. “We are much greener at this point in the season than we were last year and have more standing habitat, with less CRP being hayed than last year.”

“Going into nesting season, sharptail numbers may have been a little down but not bad,” states Plourde. He continues, “We are beginning to see fairly good-sized broods and expect that hunters will see similar numbers of birds this fall.”

What about sage grouse? Peering into his prairie crystal-ball, Plourde predicts, “Hunters may find slightly better sage grouse numbers this fall. Sage grouse tend to handle heat and drought better than the other birds (sharptails and pheasants) and we had fair numbers going into nesting season.” Sage grouse are most likely to be found in the central part of region 6.

Both experts agree that habitat conditions will be better this year than in the fall of 2021. Bower does caution: “By the time hunting season rolls around be sure to park on dirt, or short grass. to prevent starting wildfires.” She goes on to warn that hunters need to be respectful of the farmers in the region: “Last year we had issues in the area with people driving off-road without permission from the landowners.”

Be courteous and help us keep upland bird hunters welcome in Montana!


REGION 7 / SOUTHEAST

Upland game birds surrounded by land decimated by last year’s drought and hopper infestation survived the winter as best they could. Winter remained relatively mild until back-to-back April blizzards pressured the region.

Justin Hughes, Upland Game Bird Habitat Specialist for FWP based in Miles City, offers hope though: “The spring in the Southeast, as with much of Montana, was wet, which was much appreciated after the lack of moisture we have seen since 2020. Coming out of this drought we are in a great shape, habitat wise, due to the moisture we have received this year.”

The case for habitat was strengthened by NRCS biologist Martin Ellenburg, also of Miles City. “There hasn’t been the need for the emergency harvest of hay from federally subsidized CRP ground this summer,” he reports. “In fact, fuel and related expenses in tandem with a rise in federal reimbursement has actually increased regional CRP enrollment” and therefore habitat.

As for bird numbers, Hughes puzzles: “This fall is pretty tough to judge. Though broods may have been affected by severe thunderstorms in late June and early July, broods look to be in fair to good shape across the region.” Contrastingly, low bird numbers in a sea of habitat may seem as if grouse populations are lower than they truly are. Hughes predicts, “All the nice habitat this country was blessed with this year is going to have what birds that are out there pretty scattered on the landscape.”

Hughes share some sage (shall we call it!) advice: “Though cliché, miles on your feet is going to make for more sharptails or sage grouse on the grill in the evening. That tactic is going to make the game that hunters and dogs play with prairie grouse a lot more productive

Hughes finished with these hope-filled thoughts: “We just need to cross our fingers that this moisture regime continues the next year or two and allows our birds to catch up with the habitat. Thankfully, upland birds have incredible fecundity when the conditions favor them, and it allows the grouse to bounce back more quickly than other game species that hunters pursue.”

Fingers crossed indeed!


GROUSE SEASON DETAILS

Sharp-tailed grouse season runs September 1 thru January 1 2023 with a bag limit of 4 / day and 4 times the daily bag in possession.

Sage grouse season runs September 1 to 30 and the bag limit is 2 per day. Possession limit is two times the daily bag limit.

There is no open season for either species west of the Continental Divide. For firearm restrictions, legal hunting hours and other details, see Montana’s regulations here.

Base Hunting License: $10 for residents, $15 for non-residents. Conservation Fee: $4 for residents ages 12-17 and over 62 / $8 Ages 18-61 years. For nonresidents the cost is $10.

Season Upland Game Bird License: Residents pay $7.50 Ages 18 – 61 / $3.75 Ages 12-17*, Senior (62+) or Disabled. For nonresidents the cost runs $55 ages 12-17* / $110 1ges 18 and over. * Ages 10 & 11 may be eligible, see regs for complete information

3-day Upland Game Bird License: $50 for nonresidents. The license is not valid for sage grouse at any time or for ring-necked pheasants during the opening week of season.


Jack Hutson is a pointing dog consultant/trainer, writer, and vagabond upland bird hunter/fly-fisher from Lewiston, Idaho.

Prairie Grouse Primer 2022: South Dakota

Plenty of opportunity awaits grouse hunters in Rushmore State this fall

By Andrew Johnson

Despite widespread drought conditions that hampered grouse production and stifled habitat statewide last year, hunters still killed more than 53,000 birds during the 2021 grouse season, according to projected harvest totals from the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department. Wildlife managers from across the state are cautiously optimistic this year will be even better.

“Prairie grouse harvest was slightly down in 2021 compared to 2020, but still above the 10-year average,” says Alex Solem, who has worked with grouse for the past decade as an SDGFP upland game biologist. “The 2022 prairie grouse hunting outlook is expected to be more favorable than last year. Spring lek counts in central South Dakota saw only a slight dip when compared to 2021, which indicates adult grouse still favored well over the winter. Hunters should still encounter a decent number of adult birds in the field because of this.”


Nesting and Brood Rearing Conditions

This spring didn’t get off to a great start, as lingering impacts from the drought were still relatively widespread in much of western South Dakota.

“This resulted in less residual annual cover entering the nesting season, which may have delayed nesting efforts or lowered overall nest survival because of less cover,” Solem reports. “Hens generally initiate nests before new growth occurs and benefit from residual cover from the previous growing season.”

That being said, some late spring rains arrived just in time to give most of the state’s grouse habitat a much needed shot in the arm before the dog days of summer arrived.

“We started out hot and dry in early spring but luckily got some timely rain to cool things down,” says PF farm bill biologist Derek Hartl, who covers Jones, Stanley, Haakon and Jackson counties. “You can see this across the entire state of South Dakota except for one or two areas that are still very dry this year. With the timely rain right during the primary nesting season, there was water on the ground for the baby chicks.”

Rain also found its way back to the grouse stronghold that is the Fort Pierre National Grassland, reports Dan Svingen, grouse guru and district ranger for Fort Pierre Ranger District.

“This year our habitat nesting season began in severe drought, but we improved to abnormally dry thanks to some rains in late June and early July,” Svingen says. “Those rains gave a shot to our warm-season grasses, and we at least had some forbs express this year.”

Svingen says it’s hard to estimate exactly how successful the breeding season was, but anecdotally he believes he and other Fort Pierre staff have seen more grouse broods across the grassland this summer.

“Incidentally, we’ve also heard from a number of people — neighbors, ranchers and other landowners — that they’ve been bumping some bigger broods this year,” Svingen adds.

In addition to timely rains, temperatures during the peak hatch and even further into the summer brood-rearing season have not been as extreme as last year, either, which Solem says is another reason for optimism regarding this year’s statewide grouse production.

“Prairie grouse production is often correlated with the presence or absence of drought. Drought can deteriorate habitat conditions and reduce insect abundance, both of which can reduce chick survival,” he says. “Although portions of central and western South Dakota are now generally in a low intensity drought, the relatively normal June temperatures and precipitation we experienced this year have caused grassland habitat conditions to improve in many areas. This would provide better brood-rearing conditions when compared to 2021.”

Based on habitat conditions he has seen throughout grouse country this summer, Hartl believes hunters willing to work for their birds are in for a treat.

“In western South Dakota we have plenty of CRP and grasslands around that provide great brood-rearing habitat, and I expect to see a lot of grouse around this fall due to a decent spring and summer,” Hartl says. “While out in the fields these past few weeks I have seen grouse. And numbers might be up in some areas.”


Fall Habitat Conditions

“Heading into fall it’s the polar opposite of last year,” says Matt Morlock, Pheasants Forever’s acting director in South Dakota. “Most of the state is looking phenomenal for habitat, so hunters should know ahead of time that it’s going to look a lot different than it did a year ago.”

In spite of the dry conditions early on, Morlock thinks prairie grouse experienced a good hatch and recruitment statewide this year and also believes this year will be better than last year. At the same time, he admits healthier habitat conditions can sometimes make it more challenging for hunters.

“Everything’s in a lot better shape, so there’s a lot more cover out there to hunt this year,” he continues. “Typically, that also means the birds will be spread out a bit more and might be harder to corral.”

Solem notes that hunters should be aware that much of the state’s CRP was released for emergency haying and grazing within South Dakota’s prairie grouse range. This will impact CRP on private ground, including those found on publicly accessible Walk-In Areas and CREP lands.

“Drought conditions can be highly variable even within a few miles of a county,” Solem says. “It’s important for hunters to contact local farmers and ranchers they may know in the area or other types of local contacts to see what habitat conditions are like where they choose to hunt.”

Here’s a link to see which counties were impacted by the FSA’s emergency haying decision: fsa.usda.gov.


Where to Go

When it comes to targeting prairie grouse, the more grassland you can find, the better. And in South Dakota, that means focusing on the western two-thirds of the state. Pockets of sharpies can be found in the northeast corner of the state beyond the Glacial Lakes region, but if you’re serious about grouse, that means targeting the counties along the Missouri River corridor and all points west.

National Grasslands

South Dakota has three national grasslands in the western part of the state where hunters have access to over 800,000-thousand acres of public land.

The previously mentioned Fort Pierre National Grassland in the central part of the state is the most well-known, and Svingen says grouse hunters should find plenty of opportunities on the grassland’s 116,000 publicly accessible acres this fall.

“The good news is that there is no single spot where to go,” laughs Svingen, who says the grassland’s grouse are doing extremely well. “In terms of microhabitats to look at, what hunters have told me is they often find them along shoulders of ridges where the birds have visibility and can catch some breeze. Obviously, hunters should look for food sources. Early on in the season they’re still foraging on things such as insects, prickly pear and dandelion. Later on in the season they’re keying in more on waste grain.”

If a mixed bag is on the menu, there’s no better place than hunting Fort Pierre. Along with good numbers of sharptails, plenty of pheasants are there for the taking and the grassland also holds some of the state’s highest concentrations of prairie chickens.

And while chasing a mixed bag on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands should be on the bucket list of every serious upland hunter, Morlock says if hunters are willing to look a little further west, the Buffalo Gap and Grand River national grasslands can be good too.

“All three grasslands will have birds on them, but the sleeper is the Buffalo Gap, where you can go for days and never hunt the same cover twice,” he says, referring to the grassland’s sprawling 600,000 acres. “Not all of it holds grouse, but out there you’re talking big flats where you need a big running dog to cover a lot of ground. Once you find a few birds and figure out where they’re at for the day, it can be a lot of fun.”

Haakon and Meade Counties

According to last year’s harvest survey, two of the state’s top five counties for grouse harvest were Haakon (4,182 birds) and Meade (3,942) counties. Found in the west-central part of the state, these counties feature large tracts of Bureau of Land Management, Walk-In Areas, and school and public lands open to public hunting. Sharpies are the name of the game in this neck of the prairie, while pheasants or prairie chickens are incidental bonus birds.

If you dig deeper into the harvest totals from these two counties, it’s worth noting that nonresident hunters accounted for only 14% of the total harvest. That means resident hunters shot the remaining 86%. In other words, these two counties don’t see a ton of nonresident pressure and remain somewhat of a local secret.


If You Go

South Dakota’s prairie grouse season opens Sept. 17 and closes Jan. 1. Shooting hours are from sunrise to sunset. The daily limit is 3 birds, with a possession limit of 15.

Hunters looking to double up on grouse and roosters should note South Dakota’s pheasant season runs Oct. 15 to Jan. 31, overlapping grouse season from mid-October to New Year’s Day.

Prairie Grouse Primer 2022: Wyoming

Continued drought conditions challenge Wyoming’s prairie grouse

By Greg Breining

We’ll cover sharp-tailed grouse and then sage grouse in their own sections for our Wyoming report.


ONGOING DROUGHT WEIGHS ON WYOMING SHARPTAILS

Wyoming’s drought continues, pushing down the number of sharp-tailed grouse available to hunters in the Wyoming’s southeast, the state’s best sharptail region.

“This fall, people will struggle a little bit. We just don’t have the number of birds we had last year,” says Keaton Weber, Wheatland wildlife biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

That assessment is based on the number of females and displaying males counted on springtime leks. This spring observers counted 169 birds in 2022, compared with 266 birds in 2021. Over the last five years, numbers ranged have as low as 126 in 2018—“a pretty poor year,” he says.

“Last year we just didn’t have good hatch production, and just didn’t have the bug life (to serve as chick forage) from having no water. We expected to see numbers a little bit lower this year because precipitation was so poor last year,” says Weber. “When we’re up on precipitation, like the year before, you tend to see those birds survive a bit better and we see them on those leks the following spring.”

The downturn is exacerbated by the loss of good Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) grass, both due to drought and to expiring contracts that have not been renewed. Says Weber, “We’ve lost a lot of CRP over the last handful of years. Even the stuff we do have enrolled in CRP is really struggling because it’s been so dry. And we have that smooth brome that’s just taken over and it just doesn’t have any structural cover for the winter.”

The southeast near Wheatland is routinely the best sharptail region of the state. Hunters can’t expect to do much better elsewhere.

In northeastern Wyoming, lek counts were not much different from the previous year and anecdotal observations have been encouraging, says Joe Sandrini, Newcastle wildlife biologist. But that doesn’t make up for the fact that the northeast just doesn’t have a robust population of sharpies.

“In northeast Wyoming, sharptail hunting is fairly spotty. We do have sharptails around, and a healthy population, but not over a bunch of contiguous ground. Habitat varies a lot in this part of the world. Unless somebody has a spot to hunt, I wouldn’t just come up here and try it out,” says Sandrini.

The situation is similar in north-central Wyoming, says Tim Thomas, Sheridan wildlife biologist. Based on his own casual observations of sharptail broods, “The 2022 sharp-tailed grouse season looks similar to recent years, with is generally poor. I haven’t seen much for sharp-tailed grouse broods this year,” he says.

“This seems like a long-term trend. While I don't have definitive answers, it is likely related to habitat. With wildlife, what isn’t related to habitat?” Thomas says. “I would think twice about heading to northern Wyoming looking for sharp-tailed grouse this fall.”

To make the best of your chances in an off-year, Weber suggests hunters seek out the state’s walk-in areas on private land. “They provide some really good opportunity,” he says. Moreover, different farming methods can create different conditions for birds, “so you’ve got to be willing to be flexible and to bounce around and try a lot of new places,” he says. “And some landowners are pretty open to letting folks hunt if you’re willing to knock on doors for hunting sharptails.”

Season Details

Sharptail hunting is allowed east of the continental divide. Residents can hunt with either a resident bird license ($16) or a bird-small game combined license ($27). Nonresidents will need a bird-small game combined license for $74. Hunters born on or after January 1, 1966, will need a Hunter Safety Certificate. A Wyoming Conservation Stamp ($21.50) is required in many circumstances (see regulations for specifics).

Season:
Sept. 1–Dec. 31
Daily Bag: 3
Possession: 9


POCKETS OF MOISTURE BENEFIT WYOMING SAGE GROUSE

Wyoming sage grouse hunting could be good but probably not great, says Nyssa Whitford, the sage grouse-sagebrush biologist for Wyoming Game and Fish, stationed in Lander.

Preliminary data from lek observations this spring “seem encouraging. We expect it to be really similar to last year in terms of number of birds and hunter success,” she says. “It obviously wasn’t as great as when you look back to some of our high points in population. If you go out and put some effort in you are probably going to be able to harvest a sage grouse.”

Drought has affected sage grouse, just as it has sharptails, but because sage grouse live over a wider area in Wyoming than sharpies do, “we do have these pockets where we are getting a little bit more moisture,” she says.

“Sage grouse, like anything, would like a little more summer moisture than we’re currently getting,” she says. “We had a really mild winter, especially in the part of the state I’m in this year. And we did get some good spring moisture — you know, not too much. Sage grouse don’t want too much in the spring, either. So it seems somewhat encouraging.”

Northwest and southeast Wyoming are closed to sage grouse hunting. Most hunting takes place in central Wyoming. The key habitat is sage brush. Since dry conditions are a concern, riparian areas are good spots to try. Says Whitford, “Sage grouse really love the grasses and forbs and insects there, and you see a little bit more of those in the riparian areas.”

Northeast Wyoming has a three-day season, but “the habitat is just not as continuous or robust. The population numbers are lower in northeast Wyoming,” she says.

Season Details

Hunting license requirements same as for sharptails.

Season:
Hunt area 1 (central and southwest. See regulations booklet): Sept. 17–30
Hunt areas 2, 3: closed
Hunt area 4 (northeast): Sept. 17–19
Daily Bag: 2
Possession: 4


Greg Breining and his English cocker Roscoe wander a wide swath of upland bird country every fall.