Prairie Grouse Primer
Most states west of the Mississippi have upland seasons for prairie grouse – prairie chickens, sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse – opening in September. These early upland seasons are ideal for dog work and sharpening your wingshooting skills. Don’t expect a lot of competition for spots, as many prairie grouse hunting opportunities are notoriously underutilized by upland hunters.
As the nation’s leading upland conservation organization, Pheasants Forever’s wildlife habitat mission is also being utilized to help prairie grouse. Nationally, Pheasants Forever is a leader on the Sage Grouse Initiative, and Pheasants Forever Farm Bill Biologists are working with landowners in the southern plains as part of the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative. Additionally, Pheasants Forever chapter habitat projects where pheasant and grouse ranges overlap – Canada, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming as examples – are also benefitting prairie grouse.
Outlook: Colorado’s rich upland offering includes prairie chickens, sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse, one of just a couple states in which all three exist in huntable populations. The largest populations of sage grouse open to hunting are found in North Park (Jackson County), Grand County, and Moffat County. Greater prairie chickens are found in the sandhills of northern and central Yuma County, extreme eastern Washington County and extreme southern Phillips County. Sharptails are doing well thanks to the presence of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands in their range.
- Multiple seasons, consult regulations for details
- Season: Oct. 1 through Jan. 6 (select units only, consult regulations for details)
- Daily Bag Limit: 2
- Annual Bag and Possession Limit: 2
- Season: Sept. 1 through Sept. 16 (select units only, consult regulations for details)
- Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 2 / 4
Outlook: Idaho is home to Columbian sharp-tailed grouse and sage grouse, and reports from the field suggest this fall will be promising, according to Jeff Knetter, Upland Game Biologist with the Idaho Fish and Game Department. Counts of male sage grouse on lek routes were down 13 percent this spring, but nesting conditions were favorable for production. For sharptails, eastern Idaho is the best area, namely the southeast and Upper Snake regions. “There is abundant public land (state and federal) and many Access Yes! properties that provide access for hunting to private land,” Knetter says of these regions. For sage grouse, the best areas to hunt would be the southwest, Upper Snake and Salmon regions. “Most sage grouse hunting opportunities can be found on abundant public land, primarily BLM (Bureau of Land Management) lands in Idaho,” Knetter says. On the habitat front, the Conservation Reserve Program-State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) practice is being implemented in both the Southeast and Upper Snake regions to improve or enhance sharptail habitat, while the Sage Grouse Initiative is being implemented across the range of sage grouse in Idaho. Last year, Utah hunters harvested 2,900 sharptails and 2,100 sage grouse.
- Season: Sharp-tailed grouse: Oct. 1 through Oct. 31; Sage grouse: Sept. 15 through Sept. 21
- Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 2 sharptails, 1 sage grouse / 4 sharptails, 2 sage grouse
Outlook: Populations of greater and lesser prairie chickens remain strong in west central and northwest Kansas, though down slightly from last year, reports Dave Dahlgren, Small Game Specialist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. Greater prairie chicken populations have increased in northwest Kansas in recent years, so the state has expanded its early season into this area that includes some of the highest densities. The extreme drought of the past two years has especially hurt southwest Kansas, including lesser prairie chicken areas that have seen extreme declines in recent years. Dahlgren adds that the Flint Hills did not receive prescribed management burning this year due to drought, which left more nesting cover on the landscape and likely resulted in higher production of birds in that area. Last year, 6,200 greater prairie chickens and 400 lesser prairie chickens were harvested by Kansas hunters. New for 2012, Kansas prairie chicken hunters are required to purchase a $2.50 prairie chicken permit which will allow the state to monitor harvest with much more precision.
Early Season (Northwest and East units)
- Sept. 15 through Oct. 15
- Daily Bag Limit: 2, single species or in combination
Regular Season (Northwest and East units)
- Nov. 17 through Jan. 31, 2013
- Daily Bag Limit: 2, single species or in combination
- Nov. 17 through Dec. 31
- Daily Bag Limit: 1
Outlook: Michigan is home to the eastern-most huntable population of sharp-tailed grouse in the U.S. Last year marked the state’s first sharp-tailed grouse season in a dozen years, as the grouse population was greater than biologists realized. The hunt is open in parts of two counties in the eastern Upper Peninsula. Most of the sharp-tailed grouse habitat in the eastern Upper Peninsula is on private land, so permission will be needed from landowners. A free sharp-tailed grouse stamp is also required to hunt Michigan sharptails.
- Season: Oct. 10 through Oct. 31
- Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 2 / 4 (limit 6 per season)
Outlook: Minnesota’s sharp-tailed grouse count declined by 22 percent this spring, but the statewide index of sharptails per dancing ground was similar to the long-term average observed since 1980. Sharp-tailed grouse are more abundant in northwest Minnesota, but can also be found in east-central Minnesota. Minnesota typically has about 5,000 to 10,000 upland hunters who pursue sharptails annually, with a yearly harvest of up to 22,000 birds. Pheasants Forever and the Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society recently, with the help of a grant recommended by Minnesota’s Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, acquired a 1,285-acre parcel in Kanabec County. The property, now permanently protected habitat for wildlife, including sharp-tailed grouse, has been turned over to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to be open as a state Wildlife Management Area.
- Season: Sept. 15 through Nov. 30
- Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 3 / 6
- Season: Oct. 20-24*
- Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 2 / 2
*The application deadline for Minnesota’s limited-draw fall prairie chicken hunt was Aug. 17. Surplus tags go on sale Sept. 24th at noon.
Outlook: Montana boasts one of the strongest remaining sage grouse populations in the country, as well as the most liberal sharp-tailed grouse season – a four-bird daily bag limit – making it a premier stop for prairie grouse hunters. Across Montana’s sage grouse range, numbers are expected to be back at average or even slightly above average except for south central Montana. Sage grouse are found in Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Regions 3, 5, 6 and 7. As for sharptails, an above average season is expected in Region 4, which stretches from Fergus and Petroleum Counties in the central part of the state northeast to the Rocky Mountain Front. Region 6, which has many times been the top sharptail producing area of Montana, should have numbers improved over last season, and possibly even above average the further east you travel. Sharptail numbers are also stable in southeast Montana.
- Sept. 1 through Nov. 1
- Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 2 / 4
- Season: Sept.1- Jan. 1, 2013
- Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 4 / 16
Outlook: Prairie grouse population counts from Nebraska’s summer surveys were higher compared to 2011, with a statewide increase of 46 percent, and Jeff Lusk, Upland Game Program Manager with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, expects a good season of sharp-tailed grouse and greater prairie chicken hunting in the state. “The Nebraska Sandhills continues to be the premier area in the state for both sharptails and prairie chickens,” Lusk says of his state’s core grouse range. Lusk adds that abundant prairie chicken populations exist in southwest and south-central Nebraska, but hunting activity in these areas has typically been low. East of Highway 81, the continued loss of grassland habitat, particularly in the southeast prairie chicken range, is impacting the population, though Lusk says a fair amount of publically accessible Open Field & Waters program acres in southwest Johnson and western Pawnee Counties should provide good prairie chicken hunting. In 2011, an estimated 6,082 hunters harvested 17,356 prairie grouse.
- Season: Oct. 27 through Jan. 31, 2013*
- Daily Bag / Possession Limit: West zone, 3 grouse in aggregate; East zone, permit allows the take of 3 prairie chickens during the grouse season / West zone, 12 grouse (combined); East zone, permit allows harvest of only 3 prairie chickens during the grouse season.
*A special, free permit is required for the east grouse zone, east of State Highway 81. Permits can be obtained from the Nebraska Game & Parks Lincoln Office.
Outlook: Nevada is another sage grouse option, where as recently as 2009-2010, nearly 9,000 sagehens were harvested. Predominately a resident-only hunt, nonresidents have, in recent years, been able to apply for two separate seasons with 75 permits awarded at the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge.
- Multiple seasons, consult regulations for details*
*The deadline for nonresidents was Aug. 3. Mark your calendars for next season.
Outlook: North Dakota hunters should expect to see a slight increase in sharp-tailed grouse numbers this hunting season, based on spring survey numbers. Aaron Robinson, Prairie Grouse Biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said the spring sharptail breeding population was up from last year, and that the mild winter and spring allowed for good nesting success. The widespread drought may have impacted chick survival, but Robinson says the bigger long-term problem is the continued loss of native prairie and acreage previously enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, both of which are negatively affecting the sharp-tailed grouse population. Found statewide, look for birds wherever native prairie is mixed with shrubland and small grain crops. Hay fields and pasture lands can also provide sharptail action. North Dakota also has a small sage grouse population, but that season is closed.
- Season: Sept. 8 through Jan. 6, 2013
- Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 3 / 12
Outlook: Oregon’s best sage grouse hunting areas can be found in the southeast, and since much of eastern Oregon is owned by state and federal agencies, it offers the potential for a public do-it-yourself hunt. Popular units in this controlled hunt included the Whitehorse, Beatys Butte, Warner, Beulah and Malheur River.
- Season: Sept. 8 through Sept. 16*
- Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 2 / 2 (season limit)
*The application deadline for Oregon’s controlled sage grouse hunt was Aug. 27. Mark your calendars for next season.
Outlook: South Dakota will again be a top prairie grouse destination, as hunter success is expected to be comparable to last season in which wingshooters bagged 48,000 sharptails and greater prairie chickens combined. Drought hit South Dakota as early as last fall, says Travis Runia, Senior Upland Game Biologist with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, which could have reduced available nesting cover and which may make getting close to birds more difficult. Runia points out the Fort Pierre National Grasslands will again represent a premier destination for prairie grouse hunters in South Dakota. “The 100,000 acres of well-managed grasslands boast an abundance of both sharp-tailed grouse and greater prairie chickens.” Runia says, “The Grand River and Buffalo Gap National Grasslands are also notable destinations.” But hunters can stay east of the Missouri River and still find birds. “The Missouri river breaks on either side of the river hold good numbers of sharp-tailed grouse,” Runia says, “Grassland dominated landscapes within the first tier of counties east of the river are often over looked by grouse hunters but have tremendous opportunities for quality hunting.” South Dakota also offers a two-day, public land-only sage grouse hunt. Last year, 11 birds were harvested in what’s looked at as a trophy bird opportunity for avid grouse hunters. Sage grouse abundance is similar to last year.
- Season: Sept. 15 through Jan. 6, 2013
- Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 3 (combined) / 15 (combined)
- Season: Sept. 26 and 27
- Limit 1 per season
Outlook: Greater sage grouse populations are very low right now in Utah, while sharp-tailed grouse numbers have been stable the past three years, reports Jason Robinson, Upland Game Program Coordinator with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. Because Utah has a limited draw only for designated hunting areas, the hunter success rate is very high; in fact, 600 hunters averaged a bird each in 2011 for each species. For those who draw a permit, Utah’s Walk in Access program does allow for hunting opportunities for these species.
- Season: Sept. 29 through Oct. 21*
- Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 2 / 2 birds total for the entire season, must have a permit for each species
*Limited entry, draw only for designated areas. You already have to have a permit to hunt in 2012. The application deadline was July 3, 2012. Mark your calendars for next season.
Outlook: Wisconsin is also home to small but relatively stable sharp-tail grouse population, the majority of which are found in the early successional Pine Barrens and savannas in the northwestern portion of the state. Some of the larger state-owned areas that focus on sharp-tailed grouse management include the Crex Meadows and Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Areas in Burnett County.
- Season: Oct. 20 through Nov. 11
- Daily Bag / Possession Limit: Determined by permits
*The application deadline for Wisconsin’s sharp-tailed grouse hunt was Aug. 1. Mark your calendars for next season.
Outlook: Wyoming is also a premiere sage grouse hunting destination, as last year nearly 4,500 hunters pursued the big birds, harvesting just more than 10,000. A 15-day season is open in Big Horn, Fremont, Hot Springs, Park, Sweetwater, Uinta, Washakie and portions of Albany, Carbon, Lincoln, Sublette, Natrona Counties, with publically accessible land available. Another 1,300 hunters pursued sharp-tailed grouse last season, with 3,315 finding game vests.
- Opens Sept. 15 (see regulations for closing dates in different hunt areas)
- Season: Sept. 1- through Dec. 31
- Daily Bag / Possession Limit: 3 / 9
Tags: Greater Prairie Chicken, lesser prairie chicken, Pheasants, pheasants forever, prairie chicken, prairie chicken hunting, sage grouse, sage grouse hunting, Sage Grouse Initiative, sharp-tailed grouse, sharp-tailed grouse hunting
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