You’re sick of summer, tired of the heat, and more than ready to throw that lawnmower in the shed for good, load up the dogs and head for the uplands. Except that it’s August, and most pheasant and quail seasons are still a couple months away.
What’s a person with birds on the brain to do? Go prairie grouse hunting, of course. Sharptails, prairie chickens and sage grouse may not be as popular as pheasants or quail, but these magnificent inhabitants of our central and western plains and prairies offer a fantastic early-season hunting opportunity for you and your dogs.
Most prairie grouse seasons start in September, offer ample DIY public-hunting opportunities, and they give you the chance to knock off that summer rust and get tuned up for the rest of the season. What’s not to like about that?
Welcome to Pheasants and Quail Forever’s 2018 edition of the Prairie Grouse Report: a state-by-state forecast of what the upcoming prairie grouse season holds. Read on, plan your hunt, and dream big, because summer’s almost over and bird season is coming…
“Above-average rainfalls in western and north-central Kansas have increased cover and forage availability for prairie chicken chicks,” reports Kent Fricke, small game coordinator with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. “Nest success was likely good and chick survival should be above average.”
In the traditional greater prairie chicken stronghold of the Flint Hills region, Fricke says drought conditions decreased the amount of annual range burning, which increased the availability of nesting cover. “However, it is currently unclear how prolonged drought conditions throughout the summer affected forage availability for chicks,” explains Fricke. “If chick survival was high, recent rain events will contribute to the number of juveniles entering the fall hunting seasons.”
Statewide, however, Fricke says overall conditions should be good for prairie chickens.
“Above-average rainfall in western Kansas will provide adequate cover through the fall and winter and recent rains in eastern Kansas will bolster populations in the Flint Hills,” he says. “The fall 2018 prairie chicken season should be as good as any in recent years, given above-average rainfall in the west and more habitat availability in the East.”
According to Fricke, hunters looking to maximize their chances should concentrate on the areas of the state that have received the most beneficial rainfall. “Hunters will do well to focus their attention in northwestern and northcentral portions of the state, where good moisture and strong populations exist,” says Fricke.
“Spring and early summer across southern Idaho were wetter than average. However, conditions since early July have been extremely hot and dry,” reports Jeff Knetter, upland game and waterfowl staff biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish & Game. “But chick survival should be pretty good if broods were able to access water and/or mesic areas.”
Knetter cautions that an active wildfire season this summer may play a role in bird numbers. “Wildfires in the Upper Snake Region of eastern Idaho could impact both sage grouse and Columbian sharp-tailed grouse. Other fires in southwestern Idaho could impact sage grouse populations.” Based on that, Knetter believes the overall outlook for prairie grouse in Idaho this fall falls squarely in the “average” category.
“As far as where to go, southeast Idaho is always worth checking out for Columbian sharp-tailed grouse,” says Knetter. “The Department’s Access Yes! program provides a lot of hunter access.”
Idaho’s Access Yes! program is similar to other states’ programs designed to improve sportsmen's access to private land or through private land to public land by compensating willing landowners who provide access.
“In addition,” says Knetter, “The Tex Creek Wildlife Management Area east of Idaho Falls typically has consistent huntable populations of sharptails, but avoid Sand Creek WMA due to recent wildfires. For sage grouse, the Pahsimeroi and Lemhi valleys, Owyhee, Twin Falls, and Cassia counties should all offer some opportunity.”
“The Idaho sage grouse seasons have not yet been set,” says Knetter, “so hunters are reminded to check regulations before venturing afield for sage grouse this year.”
Idaho Grouse Page
Idaho Public Lands
“Prairie grouse habitat conditions in Minnesota are similar to last year and in recent years,” says Charlotte Roy, grouse project leader with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “We do not have any data on nesting success and chick survival in sharp-tailed grouse, so it’s difficult to identify additional factors that had an influence this year, but generally speaking, heavy rain during nesting and when chicks are young is expected to reduce nest success and chick survival.”
Roy says portions of both the east-central region and the northwest region experienced heavy rain events in June this year.
“Counts were down this year, compared to last year,” says Roy. “However, most of the birds that are harvested in the fall are young of the year. Without data on production of young, solid predictions are hard to make.”
Having said that, Roy says the population of sharp-tailed grouse in the northwest region of the state is larger than the east-central region, “so hunters will likely have higher encounter rates with birds in the northwest,” she says. “Last year, the season dates were changed in the east-central region to allow young birds to mature a bit more before the season opened. Hunters should note that the sharptail season in the east-central region is open October 13 to November 30, whereas the season in the northwest is open earlier and runs September 15 to November 30.”
“Last year’s late summer drought, followed by a tough long winter that left snow on the ground through April in many areas, along with a wet spring, has created unique conditions for grouse this year,” reports Jake Doggett, upland game bird habitat specialist with Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “Generally speaking, nest success and chick survival rates should be good this year. However, in many areas fewer birds were present to initiate nests during the breeding season to begin with.”
Doggett says that where nests hatched, apparent chick survival should be about average this year. “However, above-average rainfall this spring could've created more stress for young chicks this year in some areas.”
In terms of habitat, Doggett says things in north-central Montana are drying up very quickly.
“Fire danger is high and this is correlated with deteriorating habitat conditions. Good moisture from extra snow and rain the first half of the year replenished soil moisture and allowed vegetation to get off to a great start; however, the dry weather late in the summer is definitely now taking its toll. Last summer, at this time, conditions were similar, and it ended up creating shifts in habitat-use that impacted grouse hunting opportunities.”
Overall, Doggett said hunting success will depend on location and being able to recognize quality habitat:
“I think grouse hunting will be tough for a lot of folks this year, but for some it may also seem like a normal year. North-Central Montana is a very diverse area land-use-wise, and hunt quality varies depending on where you are at and what conditions were like that year. For folks that can get into areas with good year-around habitat, hunting will not be too bad. For folks that generally hunt in fringe areas, this year might seem like a relatively poor year for grouse hunting. It’s all about the habitat for upland game birds.
“This winter was quite tough in southeastern Montana. Not only did we receive a lot of snow and cold weather across most of the region, but it also lingered late into the spring months,” says Justin Hughes, upland game bird habitat specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “These conditions paired with the severe drought that the region faced last year have had an adverse impact on prairie grouse.”
According to Hughes, throughout spring and early summer the region received a fair amount of rain, which was great for growing grouse habitat in agricultural and rangelands.
“However, there was some severe weather including hail that accompanied that precipitation in many areas across the region,” says Hughes. “Overall production could range from poor to about average, considering populations were already depressed going into the spring breeding season.”
Overall, Hughes believes habitat should look pretty fair going into the season, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to birds. “I believe folks that make the trip to southeastern Montana will find that bird numbers are simply not what they have been in the past,” says Hughes. “Areas of prime grouse habitat should still have fair to good bird production, but those areas of average to marginal habitat will see the most noticeable changes in bird numbers.”
“Spring and summer weather in northeastern Montana during nesting and brood rearing seasons was good for grouse chick survival and should enable population increases over last year,” says Ken Plourde, upland game bird habitat specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “Temperatures were average with no cold spells during hatch. Moisture was slightly below average across much of the region, but came very consistently throughout the season, and that was enough to create good habitat conditions and plenty of insects for chicks.”
However, Plourde notes that Montana did experience a severe drought during 2017 that decreased chick survival that year. “Spring lek counts for sharptails and sage grouse were down from 2017 counts in most areas,” says Plourde. “This does mean that populations started at a slight deficit before going into the 2018 breeding season. The drought also led to increased haying, so there was less residual cover available for early nesting in some areas. While the better conditions during this hatching season will help populations recover, populations in some areas may take more than a single year to fully recover from the drought.”
Also playing a large role in bird numbers is CRP loss, says Plourde. “Northeastern Montana saw roughly 172,000 acres of CRP expire in the fall of 2017,” he says. “Some of this was converted back to cropland, and other fields were kept but hayed this year. There will be less cover available in some places which will affect sharp-tailed grouse populations and distribution in those areas.”
Overall, however, Plourde believes the region should have a decent prairie grouse season in areas with sufficient habitat.
“So far, based on breeding season grouse populations habitat, and weather conditions during nesting and brood rearing season, the prairie grouse season in northeastern Montana should range from fair to good in areas with sufficient habitat,” says Plourde. “Areas without sufficient grouse habitat from the species being pursued should be avoided. Due to habitat change in this portion of Montana, hunters should expect to seek out the areas of better habitats to be successful.”
Plourde also recommends checking out the MFW&P website, which now has updated info on Montana’s access programs and its popular Hunt Planner map.
Hunt Planner Map
“Prairie grouse production and hunting success should improve in 2018,” reports Travis Runia, upland game biologist with South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. “Habitat conditions look excellent across the prairie grouse stronghold of western and central South Dakota. Timely rains have rangeland habitat conditions in great shape with no drought conditions present in any of the primary prairie grouse range through mid-summer.”
Runia says drought is the biggest threat to prairie grouse production each year, and that hunting was tough in 2017 as severe drought occurred over essentially all of the primary prairie grouse range. The 2017 drought could have possibly suppressed grouse production in 2018 because less residual cover was available for early nesting, but even at that Runia expects better production than 2017.
“Weather conditions this year were very similar to 2013 when we had a very cold April following a drought year,” says Runia. “Prairie grouse production was average in 2013, and even average production would be a major improvement from last year. Our prairie grouse populations really boom when we string multiple non-drought years together. Prairie grouse initiate nesting before spring green up so the residual grass from the previous year is important for concealment. Hopefully 2018 is just the beginning of a multi-year non-drought cycle.”
As for opportunity, Runia says the central portion of South Dakota is a premier location to bag a mix of sharp-tailed grouse and greater prairie chickens.
“These two similar species are often found in mixed flocks,” explains Runia. “Sharptails are more abundant in the rougher terrain areas with shrubby draws while prairie chickens flourish in grassland dominated landscapes with interspersed cropland.”
“Prairie grouse hunting opens at sunrise,” he says, “which can provide extra opportunity for hunters targeting pheasants which has a later start time. The prairie grouse season opens September 15, more than a full month prior to the October 20 pheasant opener. Both seasons conclude on January 6. Harvesting an upland trifecta of sharp-tailed grouse, greater prairie chicken and pheasant is a realistic accomplishment in central South Dakota when both seasons are open.”
“The Sandhills have experienced an excellent year for moisture and the hills look the best they have for a few years,” states Dr. Jeff Lusk, Upland Game Program Manager for the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission. “We had nice rains in May, June, and July. In fact, ranchers are just getting into the hayfields and they usually start just after July 4th weekend. Meadows still have some standing water in places. I was noticing hoppers prior to July 1, which is a good indication for brood survival and so I'm very optimistic about this year.”
Lusk says last year was a poor production year due to no rainfall in June and July as well as no grasshoppers, which brought production down.
“That was reflected in our 2018 spring breeding population routes. I believe we were down probably 15%, but I feel our production will make up for losses last year and we will have a nice prairie grouse season,” says Lusk. “The numbers of males on leks were much higher for both sharptails and chickens compared to 2017, and the July rural mail carrier counts were generally higher, too. Both the sandhills and panhandle indices were higher, as was the statewide index.”
Lusk says habitat conditions in Nebraska remain good going into fall. “The Sandhills look great with excellent grass and forb production in the hills,” he says. “I suspect the southwest and panhandle should look good as they have been receiving some nice rains as well.”
As for areas, Lusk says the traditional Sandhills region will offer good hunting, but not to overlook the ample public access in southwest portion of the state as well.
Nebraska Upland Page
“In many areas throughout Nevada sage grouse nest and brood success increased in 2018 compared to 2017, particularly in the northwestern portion of the state and in central Nevada,” reports Shawn Espinosa, Upland Game Staff Specialist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
“However, the unfortunate situation that emerged for sage grouse in Nevada in 2018 was the loss of over 600,000 acres of quality sage grouse habitat due to wildfire” he continues. “The Martin Fire in northern Nevada burned 441,000 acres and consumed habitat surrounding 39 sage grouse leks. Chick survival was affected by these fires.”
To make matters worse, Espinosa says Nevada, like much of the West, has experienced record high temperatures with very little moisture.
“At this point in time, there is a lot of stress on natural springs and meadow complexes and they are beginning to diminish in size and dessicate,” says Espinosa. “Much of the uplands are very dry as well. Two very productive sage grouse hunting areas in Humboldt and Elko Counties were closed due to the Martin Fire. But other areas unaffected by fire should provide fair to good hunting opportunities for sage grouse with the increased production this year.”
Espinosa says there are some changes to the sage grouse hunting regulations this year, with popular hunt units 051-066 closed to sage grouse hunting for the 2018 season, as well as hunt unit 034 (Black Rock Range).
“Nevada is losing sage grouse habitat at an alarming rate due to wildfire,” says Espinosa. “This has largely all occurred in the last 18 years and the size of the areas in need of restoration exceed the fiscal and personnel ability of the federal land management agencies and the state wildlife management agency. From a larger scale perspective, there have been no meaningful management actions or methods to curb or reduce cheatgrass in much of the Great Basin.”
“We had much-welcomed precipitation this spring and our rangelands and grasslands recovered very well after the exceptional drought of 2017,” says Jesse Kolar, Upland Game Management Biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. “Residual grasses were practically non-existent in much of our state, so early nesting attempts might have been less successful. Our early summer temperatures were not too cool, but we did have several, isolated storms that included heavy rains and hail.”
Kolar said the improved weather increased not only grass, but forbs as well.
“There seems to have been a biological release of seed and fruit crops this year,” says Kolar. “Buffaloberry, chokecherry, green ash and many of the seed/fruit crops were notably bountiful. Buffaloberry, in particular, is an important component of sharp-tailed grouse diets on native range.”
However, Kolar says the biggest limiting factor to bird number is, once again, loss of CRP habitat.
“We are continuing to see large-scale declines in acreage enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program,” states Kolar. “This is not due to the lack of interest, but due to the lack of Farm Bill funding. It is unlikely that we will see upland game birds reach levels that we saw in the mid-2000’s, attainable largely by abundant CRP habitat.”
As a result, Kolar says hunters should temper expectations for the upcoming season.
“Unfortunately, despite a rapid turnaround in our habitat conditions, our prairie grouse will take longer to recover,” says Kolar. “Hunters should expect to find sharp-tailed grouse at much lower densities than they’re used to. Our spring population index reached the lowest it has been in over 10 years, and our seasons will remain closed for sage grouse and prairie chickens.”
For hunters willing to take their chances, Kolar says to look to the southeastern part of the state.
“That’s the one area that showed population increases from the lows experienced in 2017,” says Kolar. “However, hunters should be aware of the part of the state that is closed to sharptail hunting where we are trying to maintain a shrinking population of prairie chickens.”
“Overall, this year hunters can expect to walk further to find birds, and many areas do not look promising.” He concludes. “There are a few pockets of birds where hunters might find success, but it appears those pockets will be even more difficult to find than in 2017.”
“We had a great spring and summer as far as precipitation, particularly timing and amounts,” reports Martin Hicks, wildlife biologist with the Wyoming Game & Fish Department. “We had no major hail events with the exception of one storm that hit central Laramie County and southern Platte Counties, but we don’t anticipate any major chick mortalities out of that.”
Concerning sharptail habitat conditions going into the fall season, Hicks says it’s a mixed bag. On one hand, southeastern Wyoming had great forb production this year, which helps, but there is still a lack of vegetation diversity in CRP stands.
“Overall,” says Hicks. “The season should be average to slightly above average compared to past years in southeast Wyoming.”
Hicks says there aren’t any specific regions that stand out in terms of numbers, but he did say overall that chick production should be up, given the spring and summer precipitation, so hunters may have better luck early in the season finding young, uneducated grouse.
“Statewide, sage grouse numbers on strutting grounds were down 18 percent in 2018 following 2017's 10 percent decline,” says Tom Christiansen, sage grouse program coordinator for the Wyoming Game & Fish Department. “After a dry winter, spring rains did not arrive in much of sage grouse range until May.”
Christiansen says this is later than optimal, and likely resulted in lost nests and chicks.
“June was green and summer rains continued in northeast Wyoming,” says Christiansen, “but for the highest density sage grouse areas it has been a very dry summer. Chick production and survival appears mixed at best. Overall prediction is for average or somewhat below average sage grouse hunting this fall.”
Christiansen says he doesn’t recommend northeastern Wyoming anywhere east of I-25 as a sage grouse hunting destination due to low bird densities and lack of public access.
“Better areas include the ‘sagebrush sea’ landscapes near Jeffrey City, South Pass, Farson and Pinedale,” says Christiansen. “Unless we have meaningful precipitation between now and the 9/15 opener, sage grouse will be concentrated near water and green forage associated with sagebrush in the mornings and evenings, with days spent roosting in the sagebrush, sometimes miles away from water. If there is standing water from recent precipitation, birds will be more scattered.”
2018 Sage Grouse Hunting Area Map
Wyoming Public Lands