Prairie Grouse Primer 2022: South Dakota
Plenty of opportunity awaits grouse hunters in Rushmore State this fall
By Andrew Johnson
Despite widespread drought conditions that hampered grouse production and stifled habitat statewide last year, hunters still killed more than 53,000 birds during the 2021 grouse season, according to projected harvest totals from the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department. Wildlife managers from across the state are cautiously optimistic this year will be even better.
“Prairie grouse harvest was slightly down in 2021 compared to 2020, but still above the 10-year average,” says Alex Solem, who has worked with grouse for the past decade as an SDGFP upland game biologist. “The 2022 prairie grouse hunting outlook is expected to be more favorable than last year. Spring lek counts in central South Dakota saw only a slight dip when compared to 2021, which indicates adult grouse still favored well over the winter. Hunters should still encounter a decent number of adult birds in the field because of this.”
Nesting and Brood Rearing Conditions
This spring didn’t get off to a great start, as lingering impacts from the drought were still relatively widespread in much of western South Dakota.
“This resulted in less residual annual cover entering the nesting season, which may have delayed nesting efforts or lowered overall nest survival because of less cover,” Solem reports. “Hens generally initiate nests before new growth occurs and benefit from residual cover from the previous growing season.”
That being said, some late spring rains arrived just in time to give most of the state’s grouse habitat a much needed shot in the arm before the dog days of summer arrived.
“We started out hot and dry in early spring but luckily got some timely rain to cool things down,” says PF farm bill biologist Derek Hartl, who covers Jones, Stanley, Haakon and Jackson counties. “You can see this across the entire state of South Dakota except for one or two areas that are still very dry this year. With the timely rain right during the primary nesting season, there was water on the ground for the baby chicks.”
Rain also found its way back to the grouse stronghold that is the Fort Pierre National Grassland, reports Dan Svingen, grouse guru and district ranger for Fort Pierre Ranger District.
“This year our habitat nesting season began in severe drought, but we improved to abnormally dry thanks to some rains in late June and early July,” Svingen says. “Those rains gave a shot to our warm-season grasses, and we at least had some forbs express this year.”
Svingen says it’s hard to estimate exactly how successful the breeding season was, but anecdotally he believes he and other Fort Pierre staff have seen more grouse broods across the grassland this summer.
“Incidentally, we’ve also heard from a number of people — neighbors, ranchers and other landowners — that they’ve been bumping some bigger broods this year,” Svingen adds.
In addition to timely rains, temperatures during the peak hatch and even further into the summer brood-rearing season have not been as extreme as last year, either, which Solem says is another reason for optimism regarding this year’s statewide grouse production.
“Prairie grouse production is often correlated with the presence or absence of drought. Drought can deteriorate habitat conditions and reduce insect abundance, both of which can reduce chick survival,” he says. “Although portions of central and western South Dakota are now generally in a low intensity drought, the relatively normal June temperatures and precipitation we experienced this year have caused grassland habitat conditions to improve in many areas. This would provide better brood-rearing conditions when compared to 2021.”
Based on habitat conditions he has seen throughout grouse country this summer, Hartl believes hunters willing to work for their birds are in for a treat.
“In western South Dakota we have plenty of CRP and grasslands around that provide great brood-rearing habitat, and I expect to see a lot of grouse around this fall due to a decent spring and summer,” Hartl says. “While out in the fields these past few weeks I have seen grouse. And numbers might be up in some areas.”
Fall Habitat Conditions
“Heading into fall it’s the polar opposite of last year,” says Matt Morlock, Pheasants Forever’s acting director in South Dakota. “Most of the state is looking phenomenal for habitat, so hunters should know ahead of time that it’s going to look a lot different than it did a year ago.”
In spite of the dry conditions early on, Morlock thinks prairie grouse experienced a good hatch and recruitment statewide this year and also believes this year will be better than last year. At the same time, he admits healthier habitat conditions can sometimes make it more challenging for hunters.
“Everything’s in a lot better shape, so there’s a lot more cover out there to hunt this year,” he continues. “Typically, that also means the birds will be spread out a bit more and might be harder to corral.”
Solem notes that hunters should be aware that much of the state’s CRP was released for emergency haying and grazing within South Dakota’s prairie grouse range. This will impact CRP on private ground, including those found on publicly accessible Walk-In Areas and CREP lands.
“Drought conditions can be highly variable even within a few miles of a county,” Solem says. “It’s important for hunters to contact local farmers and ranchers they may know in the area or other types of local contacts to see what habitat conditions are like where they choose to hunt.”
Here’s a link to see which counties were impacted by the FSA’s emergency haying decision: fsa.usda.gov.
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 grouse, that means targeting the counties along the Missouri River corridor and all points west.
South Dakota has three national grasslands in the western part of the state where hunters have access to over 800,000-thousand acres of public land.
The previously mentioned Fort Pierre National Grassland in the central part of the state is the most well-known, and Svingen says grouse hunters should find plenty of opportunities on the grassland’s 116,000 publicly accessible acres this fall.
“The good news is that there is no single spot where to go,” laughs Svingen, who says the grassland’s grouse are doing extremely well. “In terms of microhabitats to look at, what hunters have told me is they often find them along shoulders of ridges where the birds have visibility and can catch some breeze. Obviously, hunters should look for food sources. Early on in the season they’re still foraging on things such as insects, prickly pear and dandelion. Later on in the season they’re keying in more on waste grain.”
If a mixed bag is on the menu, there’s no better place than hunting Fort Pierre. Along with good numbers of sharptails, plenty of pheasants are there for the taking and the grassland also holds some of the state’s highest concentrations of prairie chickens.
And while chasing a mixed bag on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands should be on the bucket list of every serious upland hunter, Morlock says if hunters are willing to look a little further west, the Buffalo Gap and Grand River national grasslands can be good too.
“All three grasslands will have birds on them, but the sleeper is the Buffalo Gap, where you can go for days and never hunt the same cover twice,” he says, referring to the grassland’s sprawling 600,000 acres. “Not all of it holds grouse, but out there you’re talking big flats where you need a big running dog to cover a lot of ground. Once you find a few birds and figure out where they’re at for the day, it can be a lot of fun.”
Haakon and Meade Counties
According to last year’s harvest survey, two of the state’s top five counties for grouse harvest were Haakon (4,182 birds) and Meade (3,942) counties. Found in the west-central part of the state, these counties feature large tracts of Bureau of Land Management, Walk-In Areas, and school and public lands open to public hunting. Sharpies are the name of the game in this neck of the prairie, while pheasants or prairie chickens are incidental bonus birds.
If you dig deeper into the harvest totals from these two counties, it’s worth noting that nonresident hunters accounted for only 14% of the total harvest. That means resident hunters shot the remaining 86%. In other words, these two counties don’t see a ton of nonresident pressure and remain somewhat of a local secret.
If You Go
South Dakota’s prairie grouse season opens Sept. 17 and closes Jan. 1. Shooting hours are from sunrise to sunset. The daily limit is 3 birds, with a possession limit of 15.
Hunters looking to double up on grouse and roosters should note South Dakota’s pheasant season runs Oct. 15 to Jan. 31, overlapping grouse season from mid-October to New Year’s Day.