2016 Prairie Grouse Primer

91981f4b-a147-4342-9f24-6f4957fb5f31 Prairie grouse—a winged icon of the American Frontier, when pioneers headed westward and relied on their wingshooting skills in order to survive. Today, sharp-tailed and sage grouse, as well as the prairie chicken—whether considered a favorite quarry or simply a welcomed bonus while pursuing other upland species—make for great sport during fall and early winter months. Hunters exclusively targeting prairie grouse often find less pressure afield during the season, as these birds tend to thrive in expansive and rugged terrain.
 
This past year, prairie grouse populations and nesting success have varied significantly from state to state. While some states continue to experience upward trends, other states have either received inconsistent survey results, or have determined—due to weather patterns such as severe hailstorms or drought—bird numbers are lower than normal heading into this hunting season.
 
Certain states issue limited permits and allow prairie grouse hunting only in select areas, so be certain to consult state regulations before heading afield. Information below contains state-by-state reports from local biologists and wildlife staff, as well as general regulations for states hosting prairie grouse hunting this season.
 

California

Outlook: Population trends over the last four years in California indicate a severe decline in the three hunt zones where no permits were issued this year. However, populations have held steady in the North Mono Zone, where 30 permits were issued.
 
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife continues to work with federal partners, including the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), on the planning and implementation of the Sage Grouse Initiative. 
 
Sage grouse
 
  • General and Archery Season: Sept. 10 and 11, must have a permit*
  • Falconry Season: Nov. 5 through Jan. 3, 2017, must have a permit*
  • Limits: 1 either-sex sage grouse per season, only in North Mono Zone
*Sage grouse permits are issued by a free random drawing. You already have to have a permit to hunt in 2016. The application deadline was August 10, 2016. Mark your calendars for next season.
 

Colorado

Outlook: Colorado is only state this year where all three species of prairie grouse exist in huntable populations. Areas open to greater sage-grouse hunting were recently modified based on grouse populations, so be certain to double-check the regulations this year. Small game manager Ed Gorman anticipates a fairly good season for most upland species. “Everything looks good this year in regard to weather and moisture,” he said. “Some areas received hail, so certain localized area populations will be reduced.” Last year was a pretty decent year for Colorado, according to Gorman. “As long as weather stays good, we are slowly building,” he said.  
 
Sage grouse
 
  • Falconry: Sept. 1 through Jan. 31, 2017  in select units only, consult regulations for details
  • Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 2 / 2 or 4 (depends on unit, consult regulations for details)
  • General Season 1: Sept. 10 through Sept. 11 in select units only, consult regulations for details
  • Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 2 / 2
  • General Season 2: Sept. 10 through Sept. 16 in select units only, consult regulations for details
  • Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 2 / 4
Sharp-tailed grouse
 
  • Falconry: Sept. 1 through Jan. 31, 2017 in select units only, consult regulations for details
  • Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 2 / 4
  • General Season: Sept. 1 through Sept. 18 in select units only, consult regulations for details
  • Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 2 / 4
Prairie chicken
 
  • Season: Oct. 1 through Jan. 1 2017 in select units only, consult regulations for details Daily Bag Limit / Annual bag and Possession limit: 2 / 2

Idaho

Outlook: Weather conditions since January 1 have been near normal in east Idaho, according to wildlife staff biologist Ann Moser, while both temperature and precipitation have been below normal in southwest Idaho. “Spring precipitation was above normal this spring in eastern Idaho and should have led to good forb, and therefore, good insect production for brood survival,” she said. “Broods of a variety of species have been observed thus far and we are optimistic about another improved year for upland game birds during fall 2016.”
 
Sage grouse hunting opportunities occur in the Magic Valley, Salmon, Southwest, and Upper Snake regions. Columbian sharp-tailed grouse hunting opportunities are primarily found in the Southeast and Upper Snake regions in eastern Idaho. “Like many other locales, some of the best hunting can be found off the beaten path and on private lands,” Moser said. 
 
Idaho is at approximately 570,000 acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, including continuous practices like CRP’s State Acres For wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) program. SAFE projects are being implemented in the Southeast, Magic Valley and Upper Snake regions to improve or enhance Columbian sharp-tailed grouse habitat. Idaho’s current SAFE acreage exceeds 114,000 acres, with room for continued landowner enrollment as the acreage cap is more than 162,000 acres. Another CRP program, the Habitat Buffers for Upland Wildlife (officially known as CRP practice 33) is another program that is helping conserve upland birds in Idaho. USDA and Idaho Department of Fish and Game are putting a renewed effort into promoting CRP mid-contract management, which should result in better game bird habitat on these acres.
 
The Sage Grouse Initiative is being implemented across the range of sage grouse in Idaho to improve or enhance habitat. The Habitat Improvement Program (HIP) is implemented statewide to improve wildlife habitat on private lands.
 
There are abundant public land (state and federal) and many Access Yes! properties that provide access for hunting. In 2016, Idaho will provide nearly 1 million acres of private and landlocked public lands through this program.
 
Sage grouse
 
  • Season: Sept. 17 through Sept. 23 in select areas. Check regulations.
  • Daily Bag / Possession Limit:  1 / 2
Sharp-tailed grouse
 
  • Season: Oct. 1 through Oct. 31 in select areas. Check regulations.
  • Daily Bag / Possession Limit:  2 / 6
 

Kansas

Outlook: An estimated 2,660 hunters harvested an estimated 1,820 greater prairie chickens during the 2015-2016 season, according to small game coordinator Kent Fricke. Spring weather patterns in 2016 were similar to 2015 across the state, with adequate and well-timed rains during the spring and summer, providing good to excellent habitat for prairie chickens.
 
“Spring lek surveys indicated a statewide increase of 14 percent over 2015 counts,” Fricke said. “The highest densities were in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas and the Smoky Hills of north-central Kansas.”
 
With large areas of intact grasslands, the Flint Hills and Smoky Hills contain the highest densities of prairie chickens. A Regional Conservation Partnership Program with NRSC was developed in the Smoky Hills of north-central Kansas to provide resources for landowners interested in grazing land enhancements and grassland bird conservation, including prairie chickens.
 
Kansas has approximately 390,000 acres of public land available to upland game hunting. In addition, over 60,000 acres were added during the past year to the Kansas Walk-in Hunting Access program, which allows access to over 1 million acres of private land. Prairie chickens are an underutilized resource in Kansas, with less than 2 percent of the estimated population harvested each year. Of harvested prairie chickens, most are taken while hunting other upland game birds. With liberal season lengths, there is abundant opportunity for prairie grouse hunters in Kansas.  
 
Prairie chicken
 
Early Season, permit required (Greater Prairie Chicken Unit, consult regulations for details)
 
  • Sept. 15 through Oct. 15
  • Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 2 / 8
Regular Season, permit required (Greater Prairie Chicken Unit, consult regulations for details)
 
  • Nov. 19 through Jan. 31, 2017
  • Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 2 / 8
Southwest Season
 
  • Closed this year due to low populations in region

Michigan

Outlook: Michigan remains the easternmost state in the country with sharp-tailed grouse hunting. The State recently expanded areas open to hunting and increased the number of Hunter Access Program (HAP) lands. Chippewa and Schoolcraft counties routinely rank as the top two in terms of survey effort and birds observed, according to upland game biologist Al Stewart.
 
Sharp-tailed grouse
 
  • Season: Oct. 10 through Oct. 31 in Zone 1. Check regulations for complete detailed definition of boundary.
  • Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 2 / 4 (limit 6 per season)
 

Minnesota

Outlook: Minnesota experienced a mild winter with little snow in most areas, followed by a relatively dry spring and very wet summer, especially in the east-central part of the state. According to grouse project leader Charlotte Roy, sharp-tailed grouse numbers are down slightly this year. “Hunting will be better for sharptails in the northwestern part of the state,” she said.
 
A higher density of sharp-tailed grouse reside in the northwestern portion of Minnesota, as opposed to the east-central area. Overall, Roy expects another good hunting season for both grouse species in the western portion of the state.
 
Minnesota’s Hunter Walk-In Program has been around for some time, but continues to improve and offer considerably more access, making the state a great place to visit.
 
Sharp-tailed grouse
 
  • Season: Sept. 17 through Nov. 30 (in open zone, consult regulations)
  • Daily Bag / Possession Limit:  3 / 6
Prairie chicken
 
  • Season: Sept. 24 through Oct. 2*
  • Daily Bag / Possession Limit:  2 / 2
*The application deadline for Minnesota’s limited-draw fall prairie chicken hunt was Aug. 19. Mark your calendars for next season.
 

Montana

Outlook: Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has continued their efforts with the habitat and access program “Open Fields for Game Bird Hunters,” where private lands enrolled in CRP are opened up for walk-in only game bird hunting. “This is a very popular program that is opening up some fantastic private land CRP for public access,” said Region 6 (north-eastern Montana) upland game bird biologist Ryan Williamson.
 
Montana prairie grouse are hunted in regions 4 through 7. The north-central and north-eastern (Regions 4 and 6) both experienced a mild winter with small amounts of snow cover. Biologists from both regions suspect there was high overwinter survival for grouse. Due to regular precipitation throughout the spring and summer, habitat conditions were and still are supportive of good fall habitat conditions, according to Region 4 upland bird biologist Jacob Doggett. “Insect numbers were fair this year and seed production probably pretty good,” he said.
 
Habitats in Region 6 responded very well to spring and summer precipitation. “The native and CRP grasslands seemed to do really well considering 2015 conditions were dry,” said Williamson. While sharp-tailed grouse numbers have seen a slight decrease from 2015 surveys in certain regions, overall sharp-tailed grouse populations remain above average. Sage grouse numbers, on the other hand, have increased significantly from both 2015 and the long-term average. “The last couple years’ annual production, as well as suspected lack of West Nile in 2015 and over-winter survival, really helped with sage grouse numbers,” Williamson said.
 
“Daniels County and the western part of Region 6 always seem to be the go-to areas for sharp-tailed grouse hunting, but I really think that the counties south of the Missouri River (Richland and McCone Counties) offer some great hunting opportunities for sharptails,” Williamson said. “That area has had some better moisture this summer, so habitat conditions should be pretty good. I really feel that hunters can do well down there if the summer precipitation cooperates.” Sage grouse hunters seem to do well in southern Valley and Phillips counties, according to Williamson.
 
Sage grouse
 
  • Sept. 1 through Sept. 30 (consult regulations for open zones)
  • Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 2 / 4
Sharp-tailed grouse
 
  • Season: Sept.1 through Jan. 1, 2017 (consult regulations for open zones)
  • Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 4 / 16
 

Nebraska

Outlook: During the 2015-2016 season in Nebraska, an estimated 5,568 hunters harvested 16,812 prairie grouse—a 54.5 percent increase from the previous year. Although there were regionally severe winter events, these events were often interspersed with periods of warm weather that allowed snow to melt rather than accumulate, according to upland game program manager Dr. Jeff Lusk. Warm spells likely reduced energetic requirements of over-wintering wildlife, while spring rains facilitated an early green-up. A relatively dry spell occurred during June, which probably benefited the hatch, Lusk believes. 
 
In general, prairie grouse are an underutilized game species in the state, particularly in their primary range, the Sandhills of Nebraska. Hunters will likely find the best opportunities in that area this fall. While 2015 was a very good year, Rural Mail Carrier Survey results show an increase in abundance within the Sandhills compared to 2015.
 
Sharp-tailed grouse & Prairie chicken
 
  • Season: Sept. 1 through Jan. 31, 2017*
  • Daily Bag / Possession Limit: East Zone (east of U.S. Highway 81) requires a special permit, limit is 3 (combined, daily and possession). In West Zone (west of U.S. Highway 81), the limit is 3 / 12, combined, no special permit required.
*East Zone free permits can be obtained from the Nebraska Game & Parks Lincoln Office—over the counter, by mail or over the phone. 
 

Nevada

Outlook: Most of northern Nevada received above-average snowpack this past year and well-above annual precipitation during winter and spring, according to upland game staff specialist Shawn Espinosa. “We were in pretty good shape coming into nesting season, or so we thought,” he said. “Lek counts for sage were up 19 percent, at least for number of adults, which is a little bit of a population rebound.”
 
Nevada conducts approximately 10 annual research projects for sage grouse, though results were inconsistent at best this year. Over half the projects reported very poor nesting success and chick recruitment, while a few projects indicated good success.
 
“This is most extreme variation that I have seen,” Espinosa said. “At least from a sage grouse standpoint, our adult population is looking fairly good. We did see some nest abandonment. Why that would happen, I don’t know. We thought we had very good vegetation conditions at that time of year.”
 
Last year, overall sage grouse hunter numbers were down 28 percent from year before, but harvest was up 25 percent. “Few people went out but those that did were rewarded with better success, more birds in the bag,” Espinosa said. In regard to inconsistencies regarding nesting success this year, Espinosa suggested a few possible causes, including lingering drought issues in some areas, fewer available spring sources, reduction of riparian zones or perhaps too much precipitation in other areas. Still, Espinosa suspects hunters willing to put in time will find a decent population of sage adults.  
 
Sage grouse
 
  • Multiple seasons, consult regulations for details*
  • Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 2 / 4
*The deadline for nonresidents was Aug. 5. Mark your calendars for next season.
 

North Dakota

Outlook: North Dakota has been dealing with very dry conditions in the western third of the state this year. “Production has been abysmal,” said upland game and grouse biologist Aaron Robinson. “We had a lot of hail events that came through,” he said. “There was nesting success but low chick survival. We are not seeing many broods, and broods we see are small.”
 
The central part of the state received baseball-size hail during nesting season, and, as a result, bird populations are low. “People that find birds are going to have to work for them,” Robinson said. Some areas in the central portion of the state, and even northern parts, received timely moisture and no hail. “But even there,” Robinson said, “the numbers I have been seeing have not been great. Overall, we are going to be down quite a bit from last couple years.”
 
Sharp-tailed grouse
 
  • Season: Sept. 10 through Jan. 8, 2017
  • Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 3 / 12
 

Oregon

Outlook: After a few years of drought, Oregon has received near normal precipitation thus far this year. The increased moisture has created better habitat conditions, though late, cool and cold precipitation, including snow, occurred in May and June. Based on data from radio-marked birds, this has resulted in brood loss for some hens with young chicks, according to upland bird coordinator Dave Budeau.
 
Many cooperative sagebrush conservation efforts are ongoing in Oregon, including the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Sage Grouse Initiative, which will provide benefits to sage grouse and other sagebrush-dependent wildlife species on thousands of acres throughout the state.
 
Oregon has a limited entry hunt for greater sage-grouse. During the 2015 season, 422 hunters harvested 466 sage grouse. “We expect a typical season where hunters will average just over one bird per hunter,” Budeau said.
 
Sage grouse
 
  • Season: Sept. 10 through Sept. 18*
  • Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 2 / 2 (season limit)
*The application deadline for Oregon’s controlled sage grouse hunt was Aug. 22. Mark your calendars for next season.
 

South Dakota

Outlook: Much of western South Dakota is dotted with large blocks of Walk-in Areas, which are underutilized for prairie grouse hunting, according to upland game biologist Travis Runia. “Destination locations, such as the various National Grasslands, often attract many hunters while other prime grouse hunting areas receive minimal pressure,” he said. Hunters willing to explore new areas or acquire permission to hunt western ranches will be rewarded with solitude and excellent wingshooting opportunities.
 
The main prairie grouse range of western South Dakota experienced a mild winter for the third consecutive year. “Another year of solid overwinter survival of grouse likely contributed to the above average spring lek counts,” Runia said. 
 
“Range conditions were excellent going into the spring nesting season, mostly due to abundant rainfall during the prior growing season,” Runia said. While nesting conditions were adequate, brood-rearing success may be impacted by drought. By June, most of western South Dakota was experiencing moderate drought. These conditions persisted or intensified into late summer. As a result, prairie grouse production could be below average. 
 
Prairie grouse reproduction may be below average due to drought, but the adult population is above average, according to Runia. “Prairie grouse hunting should be good, although fewer broods and more adult groups of birds will likely be available,” he said.
 
Sharp-tailed grouse & Prairie chicken
 
  • Season: Sept. 17 through Jan. 1, 2017
  • Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 3 (combined) / 15 (combined)
Sage grouse
 
  • Season: Sept. 17 through Sept. 18*
  • Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 1 / 1 (season limit)
*The resident application deadline for South Dakota's limited sage grouse hunt was Aug. 17. Mark your calendars for next season. If there are leftovers licenses from the 40 available, these will be issued on a first come first served basis to both residents and non-residents. 
 

Wisconsin

Outlook: There are limited opportunities for prairie grouse hunting in Wisconsin, with only 25 sharp-tailed grouse permits available for 2016. Sharp-tailed grouse occur at low densities across landscapes of Wisconsin and are often hard to locate. As well, only 22 sharp-tailed grouse were harvested last year.
 
“The winter of 2015-16 was the second consecutive mild winter,” said upland wildlife ecologist and farm bill specialist Mark Witecha. “Spring nesting conditions were anecdotally average or above average. This summer, we’ve seen a few large rain events that could impact brood success, especially for sharp-tailed grouse, but have thankfully avoided cool, rainy conditions for the most part.”
 
Sharp-tailed grouse
 
  • Season: Oct. 15 through Nov. 6* in select zone, consult regulations
  • Daily Bag / Possession Limit:  1 / 1
*The application deadline for Wisconsin’s sharp-tailed grouse hunt was Aug. 1. Mark your calendars for next season. Hunters need to tag the carcass if they leave it unattended, and register their bird either online or by phone by 5 p.m. on the day following harvest.
 

Wyoming

Outlook: With only a few hundred more hunters heading afield last year, sharp-tailed grouse harvest numbers more than doubled compared to the prior two years—from approximately 1,200 sharp-tailed grouse in 2013, 1,500 in 2014, to nearly 4,000 in 2015.
 
The last three springs in Wyoming have delivered above average precipitation, thus providing the necessary nesting and brood-rearing cover needed to increase sharp-tailed grouse populations. “Grouse in attendance at leks has trended down since the high in 2013,” said Wheatland wildlife biologist Martin Hicks, “but based on the past 10 years, sharp-tailed grouse attendance and the number of leks observed has been trending up.”
 
The loss of lands enrolled into the Conservation Reserve Program has most likely suppressed production and survival the past three years. Additionally, dry, hot conditions coupled with several hail events most likely have negatively affected sharp-tailed grouse chicks in localized areas, according to Hicks.
 
Based on spring lek surveys and above average spring, Hicks is hoping for an increase in brood production and survival. “The 2016 season looks to be promising compared to past years,” he said. “Dry conditions are somewhat of a concern for potential wildfires, which includes 23,000 acres of native rangeland burned in Goshen County in late July.”    
 
Sage grouse
 
  • Opens Sept. 17 (consult regulations for closing dates in different Hunt Areas)
  • Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 2 / 4
Sharp-tailed grouse
 
  • Season: Sept. 1- through Dec. 31 (open in Hunt Area 1 only)
  • Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 3 / 9
 
 
Story by Jack Hennessy. John is the author of the blog “Braising the Wild.” Follow him on Facebook: Facebook.com/braisingthewild and Twitter and Instragram: @WildGameJack.
 
Photo Credit: Chip Laughton