Most states west of the Mississippi River have upland seasons for prairie grouse – prairie chickens, sage grouse and/or sharp-tailed grouse – opening in September. These early upland seasons are ideal for dog work and sharpening your wingshooting skills. Don’t expect a lot of competition for spots, as many prairie grouse hunting opportunities are notoriously underutilized by upland hunters. This outlook focuses on the states with the most widespread populations:
Kansas has an early prairie chicken season (Northwest and East units, Sept. 15 – Oct. 15, 2013) that gives bird hunters a unique opportunity to walk up greater prairie chickens and work bird dogs long before pheasant and quail seasons open. The early season was established to provide additional hunting opportunity for this tallgrass prairie icon and let hunters enjoy a true one-of-a-kind grassland hunt. The traditional prairie chicken season is Nov. 16-Jan. 31, 2014 in the East and Northwest units, and Nov. 16-Dec. 31 in the Southwest Unit, and during this season, most prairie chickens are taken by pass shooting. While prairie chickens rarely flush within shotgun range of walking hunters during the regular season, the early season, flocks of young birds are more likely to hold for walking hunters and dogs. All prairie chicken hunters must have a $2.50 prairie chicken permit in addition to a hunting license. Permits may be purchased wherever licenses are sold and online. Information provided by hunters at the time of purchase will help biologists estimate prairie chicken harvest and hunting pressure. A more substantial prairie grouse population update is expected to be released by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism later this month.
Even Montana, one of the last great places for mixed bag upland hunting, is seeing land changes affecting its upland bird populations. Large acreages of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands are being returned to crop production in many places, habitat loss which is expected to have a long-term impact to prairie grouse populations if habitat isn’t restored. The weather side hasn’t been much kinder, as a drought last year was followed up by substantial spring flooding events in early June. Consequently, sharp-tailed grouse numbers are expected to be average to below average across the eastern region of the state. Sage grouse were really hurt by last year’s extreme drought conditions, which led to low brood survival. Hunters can expect sage grouse numbers to be average to well below average across Montana’s entire sage grouse range, though excellent brood rearing conditions this summer may mitigate those declines to some extent. Both grouse seasons in Montana opened Sept. 1, with the sage grouse season closing Nov. 1, 2013 and the sharp-tailed grouse season closing Jan. 1, 2014.
Nebraska’s July Rural Mail Carrier Survey indicated regional and statewide declines in prairie grouse (sharp-tailed grouse & greater prairie chicken) abundance compared to 2012. Regional declines were greatest in the Northeast and Central regions. The Sandhills, west of Highway 81 in the western grouse zone, continues to be the core of the prairie grouses range in Nebraska, and will offer the best opportunities for harvest this year. East of Highway 81, in the eastern grouse zone (where one of 400 special, free permits is required) brood observations, like those of pheasants and bobwhites, have been few. Further, habitat loss continues to accelerate in the eastern zone. As for southwest Nebraska, Johnson and western Pawnee Counties should offer the best chances this year. Nebraska’s prairie grouse season runs Sept. 1, 2013 through Jan. 31, 2014.
Sharp-tailed grouse, as well as Hungarian partridge populations, are down significantly from last year in North Dakota. The July and August roadside counts suggested suggest sharp-tailed grouse numbers are down 51 percent statewide from last year, with the number of broods observed down 50 percent, while the statewide Hungarian partridge population is down 34 percent from last year, and the number of broods observed is down 31 percent. Aaron Robinson, upland game biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Dickinson, said even though spring survey numbers indicated a population comparable to last year, the telling factor is always late-summer counts. “Fall hunting season success is directly correlated to the current year’s reproductive success – if there is a good hatch then logically there will be more birds on the landscape come fall hunting season,” Robinson said. The season for sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge in North Dakota runs Sept. 14, 2013 through Jan. 5, 2014.
Prairie grouse production – sharptails and greater prairie chickens – was the worst on record in 2012, likely in response to record drought conditions in central and western South Dakota. “The cold and wet spring was not ideal for prairie grouse production in 2013, but we are optimistic that production will be higher than 2012,” says Travis Runia, a senior upland game biologist with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department. Runia noted that continued grassland habitat loss has eroded the prairie grouse distribution along their eastern range, but when hunters do find grasslands, they should find them with more cover than last year, which should help hunting success. The Fort Pierre National Grasslands, with 100,000-plus acres of well-managed grasslands, still represents the premier destination for prairie grouse hunters in South Dakota. South Dakota’s prairie grouse season runs Sept. 21, 2013 through Jan. 5, 2014.
Anthony’s Antics Afield is written by Anthony Hauck, Pheasants Forever’s Online Editor. Email Anthony at AHauck@pheasantsforever.organd follow him on Twitter @AnthonyHauckPF.