2015 Prairie Grouse Primer

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The sport of prairie grouse hunting is one steeped in tradition. From sharp-tailed grouse to sage grouse to prairie chickens, these birds remain icons in the pastoral landscapes they inhabit. Documented in the journals of adventurers like Lewis and Clark, prairie grouse embody the tenacity of America’s pioneers.
 
Hunters spend hours under the beating sun—a panting, furry companion at their side—ambling across plains and through sagebrush, surveying wide horizons, and chasing the chuckle of a flush. Fractions of seconds comprise each window of opportunity, when a bird suddenly emerges inches away from the snout of man’s best friend. Fatigue from the miles already walked dissolve with each encounter, as owners utter a few select words to their canine counterparts. The day’s remaining dialogue is delivered through the strut of a retrieval, a wagging tail and a wide grin. 
 
Regulations vary year to year based upon the surveys and conservation work of biologists, landowners and organizations such as Pheasants Forever, which remains a leader on the Sage Grouse Initiative and the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative.
 
Prairie grouse flourish where other upland game birds bother not to tread, so hunters looking to work their dogs and test their aim will find less-pressured hunting areas throughout the country. Below are forecasts and general regulations for states open for prairie grouse this season.
 


California

Outlook: Population trends over the last three years in California indicate a severe negative decline in the three hunt zones where no permits were issued this year. However, populations have held steady in the North Mono Zone, where 30 permits were issued. 
 
Though severe drought conditions persist, timely spring precipitation and summer storms contributed to fair grass and forb growth. “Considering just changes in population from 2014-2015,” said Levi Souza of the Upland Game Program, “we have preliminary indications of population recovery in the East and West Lassen hunt zones.”
 
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife continues to work with federal partners, including the Natural Resource Conservation Service, on the planning and implementation of the Sage Grouse Initiative.  
 
  • General and Archery Season: Sept. 12 and 13, must have a permit* 
  • Falconry Season: Nov. 7 through Jan. 5, 2016, must have a permit*
  • Limits: 1 either-sex sage grouse per season, only in North Mono Zone
*Sage grouse permits are issued by a free random drawing. The application deadline to hunt this season was August 10, 2015. Mark your calendars for next season.
 

Colorado

Outlook: Colorado is only state this year where all three species of prairie grouse exist in huntable populations. Areas open to greater sage grouse hunting were recently modified based on populations, so be certain to double-check the regulations this year. Floods inundated the northeast portion of the state, where the majority of greater prairie chicken hunting occurs. Nesting conditions may have been adversely affected as a result of the surplus moisture. 
 
  • Season 1: Sept. 12 through Sept. 13 (select units only, consult regulations for details)
  • Daily Bag/Possession Limit: 2/2
  • Season 2: Sept. 12 through Sept. 18 (select units only, consult regulations for details)
  • Daily Bag/Possession Limit: 2/4
  • Season: Oct. 1 through Jan. 3, 2016 (select units only, consult regulations for details)
  • Season Bag/Possession Limit: 2
  • Season: Sept. 1 through Sept. 20 (select units only, consult regulations for details)
  • Daily Bag/Possession Limit: 2/4

Idaho

Outlook: A large, 280,000-plus acre wildfire broke out in Owyhee County early August, affecting areas of the sage grouse range. Fortunately, the majority of the fire did not occur in the core sage grouse habitat, and wildlife experts expect minimal impacts on hunting this year. 
 
In addition to sage grouse, Idaho supports the largest remaining population of Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, once considered the most abundant and well-known game bird in the Pacific Northwest. There are a multitude of upland game bird hunting opportunities on millions of acres of public land in Idaho. Season lengths are long and bag limits generous. Hunters can visit http://fishandgame.idaho.gov/ifwis/huntplanner/accessyesguide.aspx to learn more about Idaho’s Access Yes! private-land access program. 
 
“Broods of a variety of species have been observed thus far,” said upland game biologist Jeff Knetter, “and we are optimistic about an improved year for upland game birds during fall 2015.” The past seasons’ weather allowed for high overwinter survival and good forb and insect production. Sage grouse lek counts were up 7 percent statewide, with larger increases south of the Snake River in the Magic Valley and Southwest Regions. 
 
Sage grouse hunting opportunities are prevalent in the Magic Valley, Salmon, Southwest, and Upper Snake regions. Columbian sharp-tailed grouse hunting opportunities are primarily found in the Southwest and Upper Snake regions in eastern Idaho. 
 
  • Season: Sept. 19 through Sept. 25 in select areas. Check regulations.
  • Daily Bag/Possession Limit: 1/2 
  • Season: Oct. 1 through Oct. 31 in select areas. Check regulations. 
  • Daily Bag/Possession Limit: 2/6

Kansas

Outlook: Prairie chickens are an underutilized resource in Kansas, according to small game specialist Jeff Prendergast. “We estimate that less than 2 percent of the population is harvested by hunters each year,” he explained. Liberal seasons, which include both an early season that favors hunters with dogs and a late season that favors pass shooting, offer plenty of opportunity in Kansas. Because few hunters target prairie chickens specifically, individuals looking to bag their share of birds will have the prairies to themselves. 
 
A recent grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service this year is expected to improve habitat for grasslands birds, namely prairie chickens, in the Smoky Hills region. Despite several years of intense drought in Kansas, spring precipitation proved beneficial for production conditions across the western regions of the state and will likely improve densities in the Smoky Hills and High Plains areas. Lek surveys this spring indicated a statewide increase of 13 percent for greater prairie chickens, with the highest densities appearing in the Flint Hills area. However, reduced nesting cover may lead to lower fall densities. The Smoky Hills region maintains good population sizes and has more public access, said Prendergast.  
 
Early Season (Northwest and East zones)
 
  • Sept. 15 through Oct. 15
  • Daily Bag Limit: 2 (single species or in combination)
Regular Season (Northwest and East zones)
 
  • Nov. 21 through Jan. 31, 2016
  • Daily Bag Limit: 2 (single species or in combination)
Southwest Season
 
  • Closed this year due to low populations in the region

Michigan

Outlook: Michigan remains the easternmost state in the country with sharp-tailed grouse hunting. They recently expanded areas opened to hunting and increased the number of Hunter Access Program (HAP) lands. Chippewa and Schoolcraft counties routinely rank as the top two in terms of survey effort and birds observed, according to upland game biologist Al Stewart.

Overall during this year’s lek surveys, there was a 65 percent increase in the number of sharptails compared to last year. About 54 percent of all observed sharp-tailed grouse were located in Chippewa County, while Schoolcraft County accounted for approximately 23 percent. However, no birds were reported in Delta County. “I expect a season similar to 2014,” said Stewart.
 
  • Season: Oct. 10 through Oct. 31 in Zone 1. Check regulations for complete detailed definition of the zone boundary.
  • Daily Bag/Possession Limit: 2/4 (limit 6 per season)

Minnesota

Outlook: Anecdotal reports coming in from northwest Minnesota suggest very good sharp-tailed grouse numbers this year. Reports in the east-central portion of the range show a fair population size. Prairie chicken numbers appear similar to last year, when an estimated 102 hunters harvested 95 birds. Spring weather conditions were favorable, and landowner and staff accounts indicate broods fared well this year, especially in the northwestern portion of the sharp-tailed grouse range. “I anticipate a good hunting season for both species in the western portion of the state,” said grouse project leader Charlotte Roy. 
 
  • Season: Sept. 19 through Nov. 30 (in open zone)
  • Daily Bag/Possession Limit: 3/6
  • Season: Sept. 26 through Oct. 4*
  • Daily Bag/Possession Limit: 2/2
*The application deadline for Minnesota’s limited-draw fall prairie chicken hunt was Aug. 14
 

Montana

Outlook: This past year, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks added 17 new Open Fields areas across Toole, Pondera, Teton, Cascade and Chouteau counties. These areas include blocks of CRP open for walk-in hunting with no permission needed. The Upland Game Bird Enhancement program is another great avenue for public access onto private lands. Interested hunters can visit http://fwp.mt.gov/fishAndWildlife/habitat/wildlife/programs/uplandgamebird/ for further details.
 
Montana prairie grouse are hunted in regions 4 through 7. Though the past seasons’ weather has varied slightly throughout the state, general reports indicate good overwinter survival and higher nesting success this year. Region 4, where approximately 30 percent of hunters target sharp-tailed grouse, indicated lek counts were slightly above the long-term average along the Rocky Mountain Front. Sage grouse reports in Region 5 showed an 18 percent increase compared to the long-term average. Spring counts were 99 percent higher than last year. However, Golden Valley, Musselshell, and Yellowstone county leks were down, while Carbon County leks were 62 percent above the long-term average. 
 
Farmers and biologists in Region 6 are reporting large numbers of sharp-tailed grouse, especially in the eastern part of the region. Region 6 has also been hearing of sage grouse broods from local ranchers. Lek surveys demonstrated an increase in both sharp-tailed and sage grouse in the region. “Daniels County and the western part of Region 6 always seem to be the go-to areas for sharp-tailed grouse hunting,” said Ryan Williamson, Region 6 upland game biologist, “but I believe the counties south of the Missouri River (Richland and McCone) offer some great hunting opportunities—hunters can do well down there if the summer precipitation cooperates.”
 
  • Season: Sept. 1 through Sept. 30 (check regulations for open zones)
  • Daily Bag/Possession Limit: 2/4
  • Season: Sept.1 through Jan. 1, 2016
  • Daily Bag/Possession Limit: 4/16

Nebraska

Outlook: A mild winter and timely spring rainfall produced excellent conditions for grouse over-winter survival and production. Experts are anticipating a “good to very good” year for hunters. The severe weather that hit other parts of Nebraska mostly missed the main area of the prairie grouse range. In addition, spring weather was ideal and produced lush nesting and brood-rearing habitat according to upland game program manager Dr. Jeff Lusk. 
 
Results from the July Rural Mail Carrier survey indicated an increase in more regions this year, compared to 2014. Abundance indices were highest in the Central and Sandhills regions. “Given their relative abundance in the state,” said Dr. Lusk, “the prairie grouse is an under-utilized game resource across the state. Opportunities should be the best, however, in the Sandhills.” 
 
  • Season: Sept. 1 through Jan. 31, 2016*
  • Daily Bag/Possession Limit: East Zone (east of U.S. Highway 81) requires a special permit, limit is 3 (combined, daily and possession). In West Zone (west of U.S. Highway 81), the limit is 3/ 12, combined, no special permit required. 
*East Zone free permits can be obtained from the Nebraska Game & Parks Lincoln Office—over the counter, by mail or over the phone
 

Nevada

Outlook: Despite the state’s fourth year of drought conditions, Nevada upland game staff specialist Shawn Espinosa said sage grouse production in many areas is fair to good. Above average precipitation patterns in May and portions of June improved brood rearing conditions. “However,” explained Espinosa, “brood rearing habitat is limited due to drought. As birds become concentrated on limited water sources, mortality could rise.”
 
Nevada is more than 85 percent public lands, so access to much the sage grouse range is readily available. Most of central and eastern Nevada including northern Nye County, White Pine and Elko counties receive little hunting pressure for greater sage grouse relative to the size of their respective sage grouse populations, according to Espinosa. The Montana Mountains in Humboldt County will be open again after three years of being closed after the Holloway Fire of 2012. The season will be short (2 days), but provide good to excellent hunting opportunity.
 
  • Season: Multiple seasons, consult regulations for details*
  • Daily Bag/Possession Limit: 2 /4
*The deadline for nonresidents was Aug. 7. Mark your calendars for next season.
 

North Dakota

Outlook: Spring census results in North Dakota showed a 20 percent increase, but upland game and grouse biologist Aaron Robinson cautions applying those same numbers to this fall’s hunting season. “Numbers are probably going to be a bit lower than last year,” explained Robinson. “We had a lot of really good cover, a lot of rain in June, then hardly any in July and August, which will impact chick survival.” 
 
Despite less than desired summer weather conditions, Robinson still expects a decent year for prairie grouse hunters. The western portion of the state and its grasslands remain very dry. Landowner and wildlife staff reports indicate very few people flushing grouse in that region. However, the central part of the state—northwest and northeast of Bismarck, even southeast of the city—should provide plenty of opportunities to find birds, according to Robinson. Since North Dakota has a long tradition of returning hunters, Robinson recognizes most people have their special spots. “If you know where you’ve been in the past,” he said, “you probably can’t go wrong there.”
 
  • Season: Sept. 12 through Jan. 3, 2016
  • Daily Bag/Possession Limit: 3/12

Oregon

Outlook: Spring breeding survey results suggested an 11 percent increase in the sage grouse population over 2014, though the population is still below the long-term average. Last year, during Oregon’s limited entry sage grouse season, 445 hunters harvested 455 birds. Summer brood surveys indicate a near-average production this year.  
 
  • Season: Sept. 12 through Sept. 20*
  • Daily Bag/Possession Limit: 2/2 (season limit)
*The application deadline for Oregon’s controlled sage grouse hunt was Aug. 30. Mark your calendars for next season.
 

South Dakota

Outlook: South Dakota boasts over 5 million acres of land open to public hunting, with much of these areas harboring good numbers of prairie grouse. Notable spots include U.S. Forest Service National Grasslands, along with state and federal lands adjacent to the Missouri River, with the large blocks of walk-in areas in western South Dakota. Upland game biologist Travis Runia expects a higher abundance of prairie grouse compared to last year, when hunters harvested nearly 36,000 sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens combined. 
 
Runia attributes this year’s increase to strong production in 2014 with high over-winter survival as a result of mild weather. “Range conditions were excellent in western South Dakota,” said Runia, “which should set the stage for excellent reproduction.” Vast areas or private rangeland also hold great numbers in the western portion of the state. “Hunters that are willing to seek permission to hunt private land can be rewarded with excellent hunting,” noted Runia. 
 
  • Season: Sept. 19 through Jan. 3, 2016
  • Daily Bag/Possession Limit: 3 (combined)/15 (combined)
  • Season: Closed due to the continual decline in the number of male sage grouse observed during the spring lek survey

Utah

Outlook: For those lucky enough to have drawn a permit in Utah, sage grouse hunting should be great, and sharp tails better than the last four years, according to upland game coordinator Jason Robinson. For those who don’t already have a permit, leftover West Box Elder County sage grouse opportunities are available while quantities last. 
 
“Numbers seem to be up from last year,” said Robinson. An extremely mild winter led to good over-winter survival rates, while precipitation in May and July created nesting success and brood survival. “Spring lek counts show a 19 percent increase in the number of sage grouse counted over the last year,” explained Robinson, “and a 29 percent increase in sharp-tailed counted last year.”
 
  • Season: Sept. 26 through Oct. 18*
  • Daily Bag/Possession Limit: 2/2 either sex birds total for the entire season, must have a permit for each species
*Limited entry, draw only for designated areas. You already have to have a permit to hunt in 2015. The application deadline was July 22, 2015. Mark your calendars for next season.
 

Wisconsin

Outlook: Sharp-tailed grouse occur at low densities across landscapes of Wisconsin and are often hard to locate. “Anticipating and allowing oneself to enjoy the experience of the hunt is encouraged,” said upland wildlife ecologist Krista McGinley, “and likely more realistic than the prospect of finding and harvesting a bird.”
 
Despite normally low densities, March and April surveys indicated nearly a 50 percent increase from last year in the number of dancing males on managed properties. Though grouse numbers remain below historic levels, numbers overall are 38.6 percent higher than the average of dancing males found on managed properties between 2010 and 2014. Wisconsin did experience temperatures well below zero in late February and early March. McGinley believes these late cold temperatures could have adversely affected brood rearing periods in late May.    
 
  • Season: Oct. 17 through Nov. 8*
  • Daily Bag/Possession Limit: Determined by permits
*The application deadline for Wisconsin’s sharp-tailed grouse hunt was Aug. 1. Mark your calendars for next season.
 

Wyoming

Outlook: Overall, drought in Wyoming from 2002-2012 combined with CRP quantity and quality tracks significantly impacted grouse numbers for the worse, according to Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist Martin Hicks. Despite this overall decline, brood rearing cover improved considerably in 2014 and 2015 and experts are starting to see a rise in the number of grouse per route. However, as a result of extremely high vegetation cover, it was difficult for staff to locate leks and then count the grouse once located. “This was definitely a problem worth having,” explained Hicks.   
 
  • Season: Opens Sept. 19 (see regulations for closing dates in different Hunt Areas)
  • Daily Bag/Possession Limit: 2/4
  • Season: Sept. 1 through Dec. 31 (open in Hunt Area 1 only)
  • Daily Bag/Possession Limit: 3/9
 
Story by John Hennessy. John is the author of the blog “Braising the Wild.” Follow him on Twitter @WildGameJack.