It may not be a banner year for prairie grouse hunting in Nebraska, but it won’t be bad
By Marissa Jensen
“Overall, winter conditions for prairie grouse were relatively mild throughout the fall and early winter for Nebraska,” says John Laux, upland habitat and access program manager for Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
Laux shares that Nebraska did, however, experience a two-week stretch in February with snow cover and extreme freezing temperatures, sometimes with the needle dropping to -20’s and -30’s, that may have caused additional stress on the birds. This cold snap could have caused mortalities. However, Laux shares that overwinter survival is expected to be relatively high.
“Throughout Nebraska, increasingly dry conditions prevailed during late summer and early fall last year,” says Laux. Although nearly half of the state experienced severe to extreme drought (D2 or greater) by October, Laux shares that the sandhills seemed to fair a little better compared to areas further south and west.
“Snowfall and other precipitation events during the late winter and early spring helped most areas recover, jump-starting early plant growth as birds approached the nesting season,” Laux says. “May was our wettest month and this timely rainfall greatly improved nesting conditions. Overall, habitat and weather conditions were pretty favorable during May and early June across much of the prairie grouse range.”
“Since then,” he adds, “precipitation has been much more limited, and Nebraska experienced several stretches with abnormally high temperatures – one of which occurring during mid-June (peak hatch). This added heat stress likely impacted chick survival in some areas of the state. Still, the early moisture and periodic rain events (albeit very limited) helped maintain quality brood-rearing cover throughout the summer months.”
Heading into the fall hunting season, Laux shares that habitat conditions are still in decent shape, but many areas desperately need moisture. Laux shares that the availability of suitable cover for fall will be highlight contingent on the amount of rainfall received over the next month.
Laux cautions hunters to not expect a banner year for prairie grouse in the state. But even an average year can provide great grouse hunting opportunities in Nebraska:
“September is a great time to experience Nebraska’s uplands and there’s plenty of public land to explore with your bird dogs. Hunters willing to put in some miles and those that can adapt to these changing weather/habitat conditions should find some birds. Birds often change their patterns in response to drought – they may target water sources or specific food sources with high water content and spend more time in shaded areas.”
Looking to give Nebraska a shot this season? Laux provides some helpful advice to get you started.
“The Sandhills represent
the core range for both sharptails and chickens in Nebraska,” says Laux. “Some of the more popular grouse hunting destinations include federal tracts of land owned and managed by the U.S. Forest Service (McKelvie National Forest, Nebraska National Forest) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Valentine National Wildlife Refuge) – these three areas alone total over 275,000 acres. Other Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) and private lands enrolled in NGPC’s Open Fields and Waters (OFW) Program scattered throughout the Sandhills can also provide good public hunting opportunities.”
“Several large Open Fields and Waters (OFW) enrollments
in the Southwest offer excellent hunting opportunities for greater prairie-chickens,” he adds, “and the Panhandle also provides some overlooked opportunities for sharpies on a wide variety of public land tracts (OFW, Crescent Lake NWR, Conservation Partner lands for example).
Scouting is highly recommended
(especially this year) as the cover and associated hunting opportunities may be highly variable across portions of western Nebraska. All of Nebraska’s publicly accessible lands are displayed in the 2021-22 Public Access Atlas, which comes out in late August and is available online.
Additionally, Laux shares some useful reminders for anyone venturing out into the cornhusker state this fall.
Do not start fires or park in tall grass
Make sure you take plenty of water – for you and your dog; many water sources (small ponds, wetlands, windmill overflow) may be dry this fall
Hunters pursuing grouse east of U.S. Highway 81 (East Zone) are required to obtain a (free) “special grouse permit”
Nebraskan and prairie grouse hunter Marissa Jensen is education & outreach program manager for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever.