It’s time: Prairie grouse seasons are just around the corner. Here’s what you can expect out in the Big Wide Open, plus insights for planning your hunt.
By Tom Carpenter, Chad Love and Marissa Jensen
Sharp-tailed grouse, prairie chickens and sage grouse await you and your dog across the central and northern plains: It’s going to be a good year for prairie grouse.
A refrain heard several times during our research for this year’s Prairie Grouse Forecast bodes well: Our native prairie grouse are tough as hell, last winter didn’t have much effect on them, residual grass cover for nesting was excellent due to a rainy 2019, and 2020’s nesting season was for the most part warm and not overly rainy on the central and northern plains … all in all, a pretty good recipe for producing upland birds.
Can you wait? I can’t: North Dakota, South Dakota and northwestern Minnesota are all on Lark’s and my docket … her third season and my 32nd chasing these elusive prairie ghosts.
But what about you? Will this be your first season for prairie grouse? Make it so. This is a year to do it. I cannot lie: It is easy as loading a truck, heading to grouse country and walking. The birds are there. The public lands are there. Your dog will figure out the rest, and you’ll return at the end of a day the best kind of tired: prairie tired, with a soul refreshed from wind and sky and grass. - Tom Carpenter, Editor at Pheasants Forever
By Marissa Jensen
Winter weather in this midwestern state is always a gamble, but Nebraska experienced a fairly typical winter for the 2019-2020 season. “No major mortalities were reported, and overwinter survival is expected to have been relatively high,” says John Laux, Upland Habitat and Access Program Manager for Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. In fact, prairie grouse have adapted to withstand prolonged snow cover and low temperatures, with Laux commenting that most winters in Nebraska aren’t severe enough to limit the state’s prairie grouse population.
Nesting and brood-rearing season provided additional variables to take into considerations. April provided relatively dry and cooler temperatures, and much of the state received sufficient moisture in May which helped kick off the year’s vegetative growth. Early to mid-June, however, brought a heatwave during peak hatch time, with daytime highs reaching into the upper 90’s and much of the state experiencing abnormally dry conditions.
“The degree to which the June heat wave impacted nesting and/or brood survival remains our primary wildcard this year. The effect this event had on insect availability for newly-hatched chicks remains largely unknown as field reports on this topic have been rather mixed,” remarks Laux. Fortunately, weather and habitat conditions before and after the heatwave were relatively favorable across many of the state’s regions, which hopefully provided adequate cover and resources for the prairie grouse: “Broods produced from later nesting attempts and those that survived the heat wave should have experienced high survival.”
Hailstorms have impacted certain portions of the state, including north-central Nebraska this summer. Widespread hail was also noted along the Niobrara River both east and west of Valentine, as well as portions of Cherry County. “Fortunately, these events missed several of the federally owned properties renowned as popular grouse hunting destinations (Valentine NWR, Samuel R. McKelvie NF, and Nebraska NF at Halsey) -- but hunters may find localized areas impacted on nearby private lands,” says Laux.
Even with the ever-changing weather systems that Nebraska historically experiences, Laux feels that habitat conditions throughout the state are relatively good going into the fall: “Total precipitation during the primary nesting season (May-July) was slightly above normal in the central and eastern portions of the Sandhills. Cover here and elsewhere in the state looks great as the timely rainfall events have really boosted vegetative growth and insect abundance. Further west where drier conditions have prevailed, cover may be sparser this fall, but this largely depends on weather conditions throughout the remainder of the growing season.”
When asked about field reports on the grouse population, Laux reminds us that it can be challenging to assess, as brood observations are generally limited due to the remoteness of the grasslands they inhabit. He did note, however, that field staff and local ranchers started observing broods in mid to late June in portions of the Sandhills (and elsewhere across the state), which is a good sign indicating successful early nesting attempts. “Brood reports have been highly variable in terms of both the number of individuals and age but overall production, anecdotally, appears better this summer compared to 2019,” offers Laux.
“Production has been at or below average two out of the last three years in Nebraska, so our breeding population is down from historic levels,” says Laux. “Yet, the fall population is heavily dependent on annual production and field reports from across the range suggest that prairie grouse hunting opportunities in Nebraska should be better this fall compared to 2019. Pre-season scouting will be key as some roads and low-lying areas remain inaccessible due to high water levels. Hunters that put in a little time and effort should find birds and have a successful hunt this fall.”
Looking to hunt sharp-tailed grouse and greater prairie chickens in Nebraska this fall and winter? Find the state’s publicly accessible lands online in the 2020-21 Public Access Atlas, available online at www.OutdoorNebraska.org/PublicAccessAtlas. Grouse hunters can look toward Nebraska National Forest (Bessey Ranger District), Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest, and Valentine National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) for excellent prairie grouse hunting opportunities. “Located in the heart of the Sandhills, these areas are expansive, remote, and rugged – and should be some of the top destinations on every upland hunter’s bucket list,” says Laux. “Hunters are encouraged to submit wings from their harvested grouse at designated wing drop boxes located at the entrances of these federal areas.”
Laux reminds Nebraska hunters to consider the state’s Upland Slam – a challenge aimed at bringing awareness to Nebraska’s excellent mixed bag hunting opportunities for upland gamebirds. To complete the slam, hunters must harvest all four of Nebraska’s primary upland gamebirds – greater prairie-chicken, sharp-tailed grouse, ring-necked pheasant, and northern bobwhite. All participant hunters are entered into monthly prize drawings and those that complete the slam are entered into a grand prize drawing at the end of the season (grand prize is a Browning Maxus 12-gauge shotgun). For more information, visit OutdoorNebraska.org/UplandSlam
By Tom Carpenter
REGION 7 / SOUTHEAST
Habitat conditions across southeastern Montana were excellent going into the fall/winter due to the high amount of moisture that was received throughout the growing season,” says Justin Hughes, upland game bird habitat specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks / Region 7. “The winter across southeast Montana was very mild with minimal amounts of snow and ice to hinder birds. The region experienced mild temperatures throughout most of winter and the thermometer stayed above 0 degrees more than we typically see. Very little extreme cold and little to no deep snow events were paired with thousands of acres of standing crop fields, some of which remained unharvested until early spring."
“Our spring in southeast Montana was pretty dry and warm for the most part which aided nesting birds,” Hughes reports. ”Good soil moisture from last year kicked off the growing season and timely rains in late May through June helped add to the large amount of residual cover that remained from 2019. It is heating up on the prairie where highs can easily reach into the 100-degree mark for extended periods of time. Now is the time that high quality brood rearing habitat is critical for getting those little chicks into adult sized birds before fall. Brood rearing habitat has been very good the past couple of years due to good vegetation growth and large amounts of insects.”
“Habitat across the region should be in pretty good shape come fall,” he adds. There was a lot of residual cover this year and although we had some periods of dry weather the growing season was good. Hunters should expect conditions similar to last year as far as the amount of cover they will see.”
“Hens and broods that have been visible appear to be doing well,” says Hughes. “Like 2019, there is a lot of cover out there for birds to hide and use, which can make getting an idea of bird numbers difficult. Hunting prospects look to be very similar to last year. With lots of cover and resources available birds will be spread out and perhaps using the landscape differently than they would on a ‘normal’ year.
As for sage grouse, Hughes says: “Hens and broods that have been visible appear to be doing well. Like 2019, there is a lot of cover out there for birds to hide and use, which can make getting an idea of bird numbers difficult. Hunting should be good, but because the habitat is strong, birds will be spread out.”
“Hunters should be prepared to be adaptable and ready to change their hunting style and locations based on bird behavior and habitat,” says Hughes. “In recent years with weather conditions and habitat conditions fluctuating from one extreme to the next, hunters who adapt and are mobile in their hunting tactics increase their odds of heavy vests at the end of the day.”
“And as always, doing homework on habitat and access prior to arriving in the state is always best,” he concludes.
REGION 6 / NORTHEAST
“Other than a few areas with some lingering crusty snow, winter across much of northeastern Montana was relatively mild and likely had less of a negative impact on prairie grouse than average,” reports Ken Plourde, upland game bird habitat specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks / Region 6. “Spring surveys across the region for both sharp-tailed grouse and sage grouse appeared to confirm that, with spring lek counts improving in many areas and populations close to average or a bit better than average in most areas.”
“Spring conditions were good during both nesting and brood rearing seasons across the region for both species of prairie grouse,” says Plourde. “Last fall was wetter than normal, quite a lot wetter in some areas, which resulted in good residual cover for nesting this spring. Parts of the region were a bit dry during the nesting season itself, but not so much as to be a big issue. Much of the region received good precipitation in June, which kept vegetation green and lush, with plenty of insects around throughout the early brood rearing periods. The eastern half of the region continued to receive good precipitation through July, while things were a bit drier than normal in the western half of the region by later in July. Overall the weather was conducive to raising broods in northeastern Montana during the key times of the season, and a bit better in some areas than others as usual.”
What about the habitat now? “Due to the moisture received earlier in summer, prairie grouse habitats are in good condition at the moment,” reports Plourde. “However, things have been drying out in much of the region. The drier conditions should not impact grouse or their habitats much beyond normal, but unless weather conditions change soon, early season prairie grouse hunters will need to be extra cognizant of fire danger when visiting this part of the state.”
“There have been good numbers of broods observed of sharp-tailed grouse in the eastern half of the region,” says Plourde, “with the average brood size a bit larger than usual. Based on spring lek survey numbers, habitat and weather conditions, and those brood observations, it appears that sharp-tailed grouse hunting in the northeast corner of the state should be back to average or better than average for the first time since the drought in 2017.”
“There have been fewer brood observations in the western half of the region, with brood sizes more variable,” he says. “Spring surveys were still lower than long term average there, but the weather has been decent for brood rearing. As a result, sharptail hunting in western Region 6 is expected to improve over the past couple years, but still be a bit below the average that was experienced several years ago before the drought and severe winter of 2017.”
“Reports of sage grouse broods have been limited so far” Plourde adds, “but those observed have had good numbers of chicks. Based on spring surveys, weather conditions and those limited observations, prospects for sage grouse hunting in Region 6 look to be a bit better than average in core habitats south of US Highway 2.”
“I say it every year,” Plourde laughs, “but even with better bird numbers expected this fall, hunters must be adaptable to the conditions and may need to try different things to locate prairie grouse consistently. That may mean trying to hunt different habitats at different times of day, or driving 20 miles in a different direction to try some other access areas. Based on conditions and observations this year, the birds will be out there, so keep trying different things. You’ll find birds.”
REGION 4 / NORTH CENTRAL
“Starting September 2019 there were a couple of snow events that had the potential to reduce the numbers of birds that didn’t have the proper habitat needs,” says Evan Rodgers, upland game bird habitat specialist with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks / Region 4. “But the heart of the winter (December through February) was relatively mild, with above average temperatures, and below average precipitation.” Considering both the early fall and late winter weather, overwinter grouse survival looks to have been fair to good.
“Spring conditions were above average for precipitation, which has led to good brood rearing cover and insect production,” says Rodgers. “We had a few snow events in the middle of April and May, which could lead to a later hatch and smaller clutch size than previous years, though.”
“Sharp-tailed grouse habitat looks good going into fall,” says Rodgers. “The ample early spring moisture led to tall cover with a large percentage of forbs in the CRP fields. That large percentage of forbs has also led to high insect production this year. With the higher quality habitat throughout the region, we expect the brood survival to be good this year.”
The formula for grouse hunting success in this big, challenging country is simple: “Hunters should put in the time and miles to look for areas that have the year-round quality habitat within close proximity,” says Rodgers.
By Tom Carpenter
“Sharptails are much more winter-hardy than pheasants or partridge,” says Jesse Kolar, upland game supervisor with North Dakota Game and Fish. “Mild winters like we had this past winter should not have affected sharp-tailed grouse.”
“Statewide, our spring counts of male sharptail displaying on leks indicated that the population increased by 22 percent from spring 2019 to spring 2020,” says Kolar, “which reflects good on reproduction in 2019 and the negligible effect of last winter on sharptails.”
“We did have an interesting pendulum of conditions this spring, though,” reports Kolar. “In the western two-thirds of the state, we had a mild winter from late February through March. We observed sharptail displaying with hens on their grounds in late March (usually the hen attendance at leks is slow until a peak in mid to late April, when most of the breeding occurs). However, the entire state was hit with sub-zero cold spells in April and many observers commented on decreases in activity during their April surveys. The breeding season appeared more punctuated than in most years, with peaks in late March and later in April”.
Kolar offers a fascinating seminar on prairie grouse habitat, that could be invaluable for the hunter. To wit:
“Prairie grouse thrive in areas with a significant proportion of native prairies or planted shortgrass prairies with diverse forbs. Native prairies, by definition, can only disappear — no planting or restoration efforts will ever look just like the native prairies, so we’re never going to get them back once they’re plowed. A few converted habitat types can fulfill partial habitat requirements for sharptail. For example, alfalfa plantings can provide excellent fall forage (however, alfalfa often serves as a nesting season trap when sharptail nest in alfalfa fields that get hayed while they’re still sitting on the nest). Canola fields can provide excellent brood-rearing habitat because the flowers attract insects and even though the canopy is very heavy, it has openings below for broods to escape predators. Likewise, fallowed fields attract a diversity of insects and provide tall weedy structure with relatively open understories, but fallowing is a disappearing practice. Sunflower fields and peas provide fatty, high-protein seeds in fall, even after they’re harvested, but they’re quite useless habitat later in winter or for nesting. Grass plantings provide good cover for nesting, but often lack the structural diversity that sharptail seem to prefer, and often tip the scales toward pheasants, which compete with grouse for nesting resources. Many Conservation Reserve Program tracts continue to expire, so ultimately, in addition to loss of native prairie, the bottleneck for prairie grouse is likely the grassland nesting cover.”
That said, hunting should be good this year.
“This year we have a few unique situations that might benefit sharptails,” says Kolar. “First, we had abundant moisture statewide in the fall of 2019, so there was a lot of residual (brown, senescent) grass to start the spring — ideal for early nesting habitat. Second, the abundant moisture prevented harvest of many fields. Although this was devastating for farming, it may have a small consolation of providing fallow-like conditions. The moisture may have negatively impacted prairie grouse breeding in the southeastern part of the state where many traditional display grounds were flooded. And unharvested fields may have benefited prairie grouse through May and June, but if farmers chose to hay their unharvested crops, it may have been detrimental for any grouse that nested in those fields. Typically, it’s rare for sharptail to nest in row-crop fields, but we don’t know whether that remains true when the crops are left standing through spring.”
Nesting conditions were good: “June was hot and dry in much of the state. The greatest threat to chick survival is usually cool, wet weather (or hail), so the chicks that hatched early, should have survived well. However, hens require much water to produce eggs, and much of their water is obtained through their food, so we’ll see whether or not the late nesting season produced many chicks.”
“We have been observing more broods early in the brood survey period (20 July - 31 August) than we did in 2019,” says Kolar, “and many of the broods have chicks that are already over half grown, which likely indicates we had a good early nesting season. The nesting season stretches from May to early August, and we’ll know more about the success of the latter part of the nesting season after we complete the brood surveys.”
“In all, hunters should expect improved sharptail numbers across the state, primarily in the northwest and central parts of North Dakota,” says Kolar. “Sharptail densities have finally begun to rebound in the badlands and the Southwest, but remain below the densities hunters saw in the recent peak years 2012-2015.”
“I’d recommend hunter focus their hunting on areas with pastures, grasslands or grass plantings,” concludes Kolar. “The northwest, southwest and central parts of the state should all be good this year. Hunters in the eastern part of the state should take care to familiarize themselves with the two areas closed to sharptail hunting. Those areas have greater prairie chickens, and we’ve closed the season to prevent incidental harvest of prairie chickens.”
By Tom Carpenter
The report from South Dakota is straightforward and sweet.
“Snowfall last winter was highly variable across the primary prairie grouse range of central and western South Dakota,” says Travis Runia, senior upland game biologist with South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, “with a large portion of the area receiving below average snowfall. There were no major concerns about winter impact on the hardy prairie grouse.”
“We entered the nesting season with good residual grassland cover across most of our prairie grouse range,” reports Runia. “The drought-free conditions of 2019 set the stage for good nesting habitat in 2020. After 2 years of very unsettled weather in April and May, this year was relatively uneventful which is good news for nesting grouse. Like last year, we made it through most of the summer without major drought issues which is good news for brood rearing success.”
“Given the good spring habitat conditions and mostly drought free summer, we are optimistic for good prairie grouse hunting this fall,” says Runia. “There should be good grass cover across much of the prairie grouse range, which could result in closer flushes for hunters.”
Where to go?
“Central South Dakota is a well-known prairie grouse destination where mixed bags of prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse are common,” says Runia. “The Fort Pierre National Grassland and Buffalo Gap National Grassland offer phenomenal opportunity, but hunters should not overlook the massive acreage of Walk-In Areas across the western half of the state, for less pressured birds.”
“Hunters could also pursue access to private ranches across the west,” Runia says, “as most will hold grouse. As you move north and west, the population transitions to more sharp-tails and in the far north and west sharptails will be the only prairie grouse in the bag. Pockets of great prairie grouse hunting can be found east of the Missouri River, but scouting for the right areas is key."
By Marissa Jensen
Winter conditions were variable across Wyoming, but no areas saw record snow depths that would cover sagebrush food sources like the winter of 2018-2019.
“Most areas of the state saw favorable spring nesting conditions with limited late-season blizzards,” says Leslie Schreiber, sage grouse/sagebrush biologist with Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “Brood-rearing so far is below average, with hot, dry temperatures and an extended drought in northeast Wyoming.”
The conditions and state of sage grouse habitat should be average as hunters step into fall. “Areas which typically hold large numbers of sage grouse will continue to do so this year. But as usual, sage grouse hunters will have to put an effort into finding them,” cautions Schreiber.
Wyoming hosts large quantities of public land, and the area available in the southwestern and south-central portion of the state harbors vast sagebrush seas that are associated with sage-grouse. Schreiber recommends hunters focus on this area, while also reviewing previous population reports here
In southeastern Wyoming, winter were quite variable with a significant snowfall in the later part of October. Wildlife Biologist Martin Hicks, with Wyoming Game and Fish Department, indicated that although the snowfall was a concern, strong winds opened roosting, loafing and feeding areas.
Springtime provided at best fair nesting conditions. “We encountered hot, dry conditions early in the spring, and they did not improve throughout the summer for brood rearing conditions,” states Hicks. “However, we did not encounter any major hail events that will typically destroy nests and broods in June.” Additionally, Hicks observed several different broods which he was encouraged by, but he also noted adult birds without broods. Given the hot and dry conditions, this comes as no surprise to him.
“Grouse hunters are going to have to put some effort into finding birds this fall,” says Hicks. “They are there, but you will work.” That’s prairie grouse hunting.
Sharp-tailed grouse hunters should focus their efforts on Walk-In Areas
that are open for uplanding in Platte, Goshen and Laramie counties.
By Tom Carpenter
Minnesota is always an outlier for prairie grouse, but the sharptail chasing can be quite productive in the state’s northwest quadrant. Limited prairie chicken hunting is available to residents on a lottery-draw basis.
“We did not survey sharptails this year because of the pandemic and the Governor’s Stay at Home Order, which restricted nonessential work,” reports Charlotte Roy, grouse project leader with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “Therefore, sharptail reports from this spring are few. Most of our wildlife staff were teleworking most or all of the time.”
Winter was typical, but that means it didn’t bother sharptails much. Minnesota’s spring and June were good for upland game birds: not as rainy and wet as 2019. Of course, there are always storms. “As a general rule, heavy rainfalls can flood nests and lower chick survival,” says Roy, “but those events typically vary widely and locally,” and did so this year.
Of some concern: “We have not been able to do any prescribed burning this year because of the pandemic, and concerns about social distancing and staff safety on prescribed fires,” says Roy. “Our ability to mow and conduct burns for habitat management are key” for keeping grouse habitat strong.
“I recommend hunters head to the Northwest sharptail zone, where we have abundant Wildlife Management Area (WMA) land and fairly stable sharptail populations,” says Roy.
“We were able to get some prairie-chicken surveys done this year,” says Roy. “The areas that didn’t get surveyed were those in the peripheral survey area, where numbers tend to be lower. So, our counts this year might be biased high since we could not include these regions with lower numbers in the overall estimates.”
Find the prairie chicken survey report here
“Prairie chicken populations have been stable at lower levels since the large losses of CRP following 2007,” says Roy. “There are also challenges to getting habitat work done with the increase in heavy rain events in general these days -- both prescribed burning and also mowing are impeded by very wet seasons.”
By Chad Love
According to Kent Fricke, small game coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, mild winter conditions and good spring nesting cover are giving Kansas prairie chicken prospects a boost this fall.
“In the Smoky Hills of north-central Kansas, good residual grass cover from 2019 led to good nesting conditions in 2020,” says Fricke. “Brood success was likely good in the Smoky Hills, although some heavy summer rain events may have had negative impacts at a local level.”
However, Fricke cautions that in the northwestern portion of the state, nest and brood success was likely poor, due to drought conditions starting in late spring 2020.
In the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas, Fricke says higher than average burning in early 2020 led to little residual cover for nesting conditions this spring. However, conditions appear to have been favorable for brood rearing habitat in the Flint Hills.
Overall, says Fricke, prarie chicken habitat looks good entering fall. “Good mid- and late-summer rains have created abundant, quality habitat,” he adds.
The result is a fairly optimistic outlook for the overall Kansas prairie chicken season.
“Prospects are good for prairie chickens in Kansas this fall. In general, prairie chickens are an underutilized resource in Kansas, with less than 2% of the estimated population being harvested each year,” says Fricke. “Of harvested birds, most are taken opportunistically while hunting pheasants and quail. With liberal season lengths, there is abundant opportunity for prairie grouse hunters in Kansas.”
Fricke suggests hunters looking for the most productive areas should once again look to the north-central part of the state.
“The Flint Hills in eastern Kansas and the Smoky Hills in north-central Kansas have maintained a stronghold as regions with the highest densities of prairie chickens, due to large areas of intact grassland,” says Fricke.
“In recent years, the northwestern portion of the state has seen some increase in populations of prairie chickens as well.”
Overall, Kansas has approximately 390,000 acres of public land available to hunt upland game, in addition to the over 1 million acres enrolled in the Kansas Walk-in Hunting Access (WIHA) program. “Over 60,000 acres were added during the past year to the WIHA program,” says Fricke.
By Chad Love
How grouse fare during the winter is key to carryover numbers, and according to Jeff Knetter, upland game and migratory bird coordinator for the Idaho Fish and Game Department. In that regard the winter of 2019-2020 didn’t have much of an impact.
“We had an average winter in eastern Idaho,” says Knetter. “Sharp-tailed grouse and sage grouse should have fared well.”
As far as spring nesting conditions go, it was a mixed bag. “In eastern Idaho, spring nesting conditions were cooler than average,” Knetter says. “Through the first two weeks of June, precipitation was below normal, but a bit of wet weather arrived during the third week.”
Knetter says although the precipitation could be beneficial to clutches that hatched early in the month, it could be tough on those hatching later.
“Since that time the weather has been dry and we recently entered a heat wave,” states Knetter. “In southwest Idaho, spring nesting conditions were cooler and well above average.”
Given the conditions, however, Knetter says prairie grouse habitat going into the fall is looking great “It’s excellent,” says Knetter, “but we have not made it through the wildfire season yet.”
As far as reports from the field, Knetter says the good cover and excellent insect production in some areas are encouraging signs heading into the fall. However, overall prospects are still probably going to be average at best.
“The prospects in general for prairie grouse hunting are going to be average to a bit below average given the cool, wet spring and the subsequent hot, dry summer,” says Knetter.
In terms of areas or regions to key in on for sharptails, Knetter suggests the Southeast and Upper Snake regions, and for sage grouse, the Southwest and Magic Valley regions.
And speaking of sage- rouse, according to Idaho Fish and Game biologist Ann Moser, sage grouse numbers have been trending down in recent years, but are relatively stable this year.
“Nest success from our sage grouse research projects indicated average nest success,” says Moser. “Our Commission is setting the sage grouse season Thursday August 20, but it is likely there will be a 2-day season north of the Snake River and a 7-day season in open areas south of the Snake River,” says Moser. “That means for sage grouse, you can expect better numbers in southwestern and south-central Idaho.”