Drought burns up expectations for this fall’s prairie grouse season
By Andrew Johnson
What a difference a year makes. After hunters were treated to a banner prairie grouse season in 2020, drought conditions have ravaged grouse habitat across the Rushmore State this year.
According to harvest survey data collected by the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department (SDGFP), roughly 10,500 resident and 6,400 nonresident hunters bagged more than 67,000 prairie grouse last year, more than doubling 2019’s harvest totals and almost tripling 2018’s numbers. In addition, record-setting lek counts were reported this spring across the Fort Pierre National Grassland, which has long been used, rightly or wrongly, as a measuring stick to gauge the state’s prairie grouse population.
“Spring 2021 lek counts had the grassland’s highest ever recorded count of greater prairie chickens in male attendance, and its second-highest count of sharptails,” said Dan Svingen, grouse aficionado and district ranger for Fort Pierre Ranger District.
However, the drought has gripped South Dakota for more than a year now, and its unrelenting impact on habitat is leading game mangers statewide to temper their expectations for prairie grouse numbers come fall. In summary, most folks in these parts consider drought a four-letter word.
Nesting and Brood Rearing Conditions
“Things were really looking up heading in to breeding and nesting seasons,” says Travis Runia, SDGFP’s senior upland game biologist. “We had such a nice winter, and grouse populations almost always increase after a mild winter. But it’s been a few years since we’ve had a drought at this level.”
Prairie grouse call large blocks of grassland home, and they often rely on residual cover left over from the prior year for their initial nesting attempts. And although this past winter was abnormally dry, Runia said most of the habitat across the state’s primary prairie grouse range actually came through winter in decent shape. However, any type of favorable habitat conditions evaporated quickly this spring, thanks to record-setting temperatures that scorched the state for days, sometimes weeks, at a time.
“Many areas of the state were extremely hot and dry in May and especially in June, right during that peak hatch period,” Runia reports. “We’d rather see lush conditions when chicks hit the ground, but we saw the opposite of that when we got really hot with some stretches of 90 to 100 degree days. Chicks that are less than 10 days old have a hard time controlling their body temperature, and if we have a hot June it generally reduces recruitment rates in prairie grouse.”
Cold, and especially cold and wet, is bad for chicks. But too much “hot and dry” is a bad thing too.
On top of that, chicks depend on insects as their main food source for the first 6 to 8 weeks of life, and the hot, dry conditions this spring did little for insect production.
“The kicker, of source, is that prairie grouse are very short lived, so they are heavily reliant on annual production,” Svingen says. “This spring we had very harsh conditions, and we know from looking at the data over the last 40 years that droughts are very bad for prairie grouse production.”
Where to Go
When it comes to targeting prairie grouse, the more grassland you can find, the better. And in South Dakota, that means focusing on the western two-thirds of the state. Pockets of sharpies can be found in the northeast corner of the state beyond the Glacial Lakes region, but if you’re serious about chasing sharpies and chickens, that means targeting the Missouri River corridor and all points west.
Although it’s not a pretty sight with all the oranges and reds covering most of the state, Runia suggests looking at the current drought monitor map as a base reference.
“There are varying levels of drought, and for the most part range conditions aren’t looking good as we get closer to fall,” Runia admits. “Within the heart of our grouse range, drought is somewhat variable. Look at drought maps, and you’ll see some counties will have up to three different levels, so 20 miles down the road the habitat could look way different if those areas were lucky enough to catch some timely rain.”
Fort Pierre National Grassland
As mentioned, the Fort Pierre National Grassland is a perennial destination for upland hunters. Located in the central part of the state, its 116,000 acres of scattered federal tracts are mixed in with private cropland and rangeland, as well as other public areas such as Walk-in Areas and School and Public Lands. If you go, make sure to take advantage of the free SDGFP Outdoors app on your smartphone, as the GPS-enabled app will help you determine what’s public, and what’s not. More importantly, it can help you determine if you’re on the right side of the fence.
If you’re after prairie chickens, Fort Pierre National Grassland might be your best bet, as recent harvest trends show two chickens are killed for every grouse. Historically, young birds make up a lion’s share of the grouse harvest on the grassland, but the fact such high numbers of both species were encountered during this year’s sprink lek counts suggests a healthy population of adult birds could provide decent hunting this fall.
As far as habitat conditions go, Svingen estimates most of the grassland is producing about 50-60 percent of normal forage production, which, of course, translates into cover.
“But the good news is there is some slack in the rope,” Svingen says. “With only one year of drought so far, it doesn’t look horrible. And July was better than a lot of the previous months for rain, so we’ve actually had some green-up lately.”
The summer rains arrived too late to do much for cool-season grasses, but Svingen remains interested to see how the recent precipitation will help warm-season grasses across the grassland.
“Fall will be very critical, and I’m hopeful for fall rain to be average to bolster residual cover for next spring,” he says. “If we get enough rains to bring the grasses out of dormancy, it will set them up well for the following spring and be beneficial for the birds.”
Buffalo Gap National Grassland
In the southwestern part of the state, the Buffalo Gap National Grassland covers about 600,000 acres and is managed by two ranger districts — Wall in the east, and Fall River in the west. While a few prairie chickens might be found here and there, sharptails are the primary prairie grouse species found on the grassland.
Like other parts of the state, the spring was relatively dry, but a few areas across the grassland still contained adequate nesting cover, according to Phillip Dobesh, a wildlife biologist in the Wall Ranger District.
“As far as grouse numbers, I’d expect an average to slightly below-average number of grouse that would be expected for any given location across the grassland,” Dobesh explains. “As far as locations to hunt grouse on the district, they could be about anywhere, but east of Wall and north of I-90 probably has the best grouse habitat across the Wall Ranger District.
“There are also grouse in Conata Basin, which is south of Badlands National Park,” he continues.
Northern Missouri River Corridor
“I don’t know what the exact moisture total is in Gettysburg, but it’s not over 10 inches since last August,” says Isaac Full, a Pheasants Forever farm bill biologist who works with landowners in Sully, Potter and Walworth counties, which line the Missouri River in the north-central part of the state. “We are currently in a D3 drought category in Potter County and all through the north region east of the Missouri River. With no rain in the close or extended forecast, it’s not looking good for grouse habitat here.”
Further to the west, Full says parts of Corson, Dewey and Ziebach counties “had a few good shots of rain” in late May and early June, which provided a much-needed shot in the arm for grassland habitat.
“Their Walk-in Areas should be in prime shape for hunting,” he advises. “Also, the Missouri River breaks are certainly holding birds, and if you can find wheat field edges that butt up to grouse habitat, that should produce some birds.”
Much like other areas of the state, Full believes the high birds numbers seen across the north-central region should provide limited opportunity this fall.
“There should be a good number of adult birds that survived the fall and winter last year,” he says. “With that, these birds have played the game, and their willingness to sit tight won’t last long after people start to target them. All things are in flux, as we have seen the last few years, and boot leather will have to be burned to chase these birds.”
If You Go
Be aware that the Farm Service Agency opened CRP ground to emergency haying and grazing in early August to support drought-stricken producers. That means private ground leased by the state for public hunting, such as Walk-in Areas and CREP ground, that you’ve hunted in the past might look a little different this fall. Half the grass might have been cut for hay, or there might be a Hereford staring quizzically at you when you pull into the field approach. That means advance scouting and calling ahead to SDGFP wildlife offices and grassland ranger districts are critical steps hunters should take this year.
Also, drought conditions have elevated the fire risk for the entire state, so hunters should keep fire safety a priority. This means more walking and less driving on field roads or through grass fields, as well as being mindful of where you park to avoid unintentionally starting a grass fire.
South Dakota’s prairie grouse season opens Sept. 18 and closes Jan. 2. Shooting hours are from sunrise to sunset. The daily limit is three birds, with a possession limit of 15.
Talented and hardworking journalist Andrew Johnson serves as Pheasants Forever’s stringer in South Dakota. He is a dedicated upland hunter.