Minnesota sharptailers could see some good action this season
By Tom Carpenter
Drought can be a fickle thing. It ebbs and flows and expands and recedes and hits some areas harder than others. I’ll add to that: Not all areas are made the same.
No surprise, northwestern Minnesota -- bastion of the state’s sharp-tailed grouse population – is dry. But the landscape here is different than the more arid climates the farther west you go. There are more low areas to provide some grassy cover here. There is brush – lots of it. Birds have options, even in a dry year.
It could be a good sharptail season. Read on for the details. We’ll talk Minnesota’s wonderful prairie chickens too, for which there is a limited residents-only hunt just south of the sharptail range.
Weather Conditions, Nesting and Brood-Rearing
“Winter was mild on the whole for temperatures, and with below average snowfall across much of the sharptail region,” says Charlotte Roy, Grouse Research Scientist with Minnesota DNR. Grouse came through that danger season in good shape for nesting.
“Then, spring was warm and dry. That’s very favorable for nesting,” adds Roy.
“Yes, by all accounts, the dry conditions during peak nesting season were favorable,” says Blane Kemek, Northwest Region Wildlife Manager for Minnesota DNR. “It’s reasonable to conclude that young-of-the-year birds will be plentiful.” Always music to a sharptailer’s ears.
But we all know the dry conditions turned into drought conditions. “It’s Hard to know how severe drought affected food availability for chicks,” says Roy. “Grasshoppers are abundant though.”
“I think we have still had good spring and summer brood-rearing for these birds,” says Jason Wollin, Wildlife Manager for the Minnesota DNR in Karlstad.
Fires raged in some areas of the northwest this summer. Tough on local birds, but good for grassland habitat in the long run. One would rather see fire prescribed and managed though.
“It’s hard to say exactly what the effect of drought will have on grouse at this time,” says Kemek, “but it’s true that the drought has negatively impacted hard and soft mast production. Still, sharp-tailed grouse are native and in general are resilient, adaptable, and are survivors. If one kind of food is in short supply, sharp-tailed grouse will feed on something else. A large part of their diet includes seeds, buds, and leaves.”
“Numerous wildfires have occurred, which can maintain grassland and brushland habitats to the long-term benefit of prairie grouse,” confirms Roy.
“It’s very dry,” adds Roy, “with less growth than normal. And some haying is occurring on WMAs and AMAs where it is compatible with wildlife objectives.”
Kemek confirms, but notes: “Wildlife managers will only utilize haying and grazing [on public lands] as a habitat management tool if there’s a wildlife habitat need and benefit to wildlife. Unlike in other areas of Minnesota where pheasants and grasslands exist, northwestern Minnesota’s dominant habitat type is brushland and aspen, which are favored by sharp-tailed grouse, and generally not suitable for haying and grazing.”
“Lots of CRP has been hayed in the last few weeks, so the tall grass is now short grass,” says Jason Wollin, Wildlife Manager for the Minnesota DNR in Karlstad. “With this drought, cattle producers are in need for hay. But there are still large tracts of WMA land that have the right mix of grass and brush for good habitat. I still see sharpies every day.”
“Staff in sharp-tailed grouse range are seeing birds, and in some areas, good numbers,” says Kemek. “Kittson and Roseau counties are top counties to hunt sharp-tailed grouse in northwestern Minnesota, but huntable birds can also be found in Norman, Polk, Red Lake, Pennington, Marshall, Lake of the Woods, Beltrami, and Clearwater counties too.”
“There are hundreds of thousands of acres of state wildlife management areas (WMAs) and other public lands in northwestern Minnesota,” Kemek adds, “many of which provide great sharp-tailed grouse hunting.”
“Open landscape, brushland habitats are key to finding sharp-tailed grouse” he advises, “A good dog will help, as will good maps and smartphone apps such as OnX Hunt, but the main thing is to cover some ground and do some walking. And don’t be afraid to knock on doors and ask permission to hunt private land. Many private landowners will allow sharp-tailed grouse hunters onto their properties, but you need to ask!”
“Focus should be on the large WMAs with a mix of grass and brush,” advises Wollin. “We have been doing a great job with prescribed fire, and its benefits for this habitat. However 2020 was shut down for burning due to Covid 2021 was very limited due to drought.”
Notably, “Minnesota’s east-central season sharptail zone is closed this year because of low bird numbers,” says Roy. “This is the first year the season will be closed in the east-central region.” That’s sad news for sharptail lovers. The habitat challenge? Keeping enough grass on the landscape and balancing in the right kind of brush in that zone, while keeping the aggressive forest at bay.
Just south of Minnesota’s sharptail zone (though there is some overlap, sharptails can only legally be hunted north of U.S. Highway 2 to protect prairie chickens), Minnesota still supports a nice but limited population of greater prairie chickens. Birds are huntable only by residents, and the license is in a lottery draw every summer. Hunters can only shoot two birds.
“Chicken numbers remain stable again this year,” says Roy, “although overall they have declined since 2007 with losses of CRP. Nesting was good this year -- we have data this year due to an ongoing study. Prospects for the birds and hunters should be good.”
Hunters are limited to specific zones. “Grasslands that aren’t dominated by brush are places to look,” says Kemek.
Tom Carpenter is editor at Pheasants Forever and an intinerant chaser of prairie grouse up and down and across the northern plains.