By Nick Simonson
While the drought experienced this summer by much of North Dakota has had an obvious impact on upland bird recruitment, hunters will still find opportunities this weekend and throughout the autumn to pursue sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge as the seasons open on Saturday, and for these predictable birds, identifying those places they call home will be key to success, despite lower numbers.
A Shot at Sharpies
For sharp-tailed grouse, the southwest and its large, unbroken areas of grassland will still hold the best shot at birds.
“The southwest and its grasslands, and then probably in the Sheridan and Wells County area, those are some of the better spots,” said RJ Gross, Upland Game Biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department (NDG&F), “but numbers will be down statewide,” he cautioned.
Gross related that recruitment of young grouse was difficult this summer due to the drought conditions.
“Drought is the single worst thing for upland game birds, because there is nothing for the chicks to eat,” Gross commented, “a lot of people think a wet spring is bad, but birds can hide from rain events, they can’t hide from a drought,” he concluded.
Hunters should target large blocks of contiguous grasslands with shrub habitat such as snowberry bushes or buckbrush along hillsides. According to Gross, while numbers may be down statewide, there may have been better recruitment in the northeastern portion of the state due to the fact that area was not in the D3- or D4-level drought experienced in the south and west.
Hunting for Huns
The southwestern portion of the state and areas in the northwest will provide better hunting for Hungarian partridge, a species which due to its small size, and acclimation to drier climates, handles drought conditions somewhat better than bigger upland birds. Gross states that numbers may be down, but he is hopeful that local recruitment in some areas will be positive.
“It’ll be hit and miss,” Gross relates, “I saw good recruitment in the Grant County area – broods of 18 and 20 – so there will be localized areas of gains,” he stated.
Again, recruitment of partridge in the southwest was challenging due to persistent drought conditions, and the best case scenario across the state is that things remained more or less the same, in comparison to last year’s partridge populations. Focusing on edges will be key to finding hunting opportunities for these smaller upland birds.
“[Partridge] like those abandoned farmsteads and small grain field edges,” Gross shared, “where that changes from stubble to grassy vegetation, they like to be in that stuff.”
Habitat and Hope
Changing agricultural practices have impacted partridge populations the most in recent years, and where once wheat dominated many areas that were tilled, agriculture is turning to corn and soybeans, even in non-traditional areas such as the southwest. Loss of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres in the eastern and southeastern portions of the state have had the biggest impact on sharp-tailed grouse and other upland birds like ringneck pheasants in those secondary areas. Additional CRP acres in the 2018 Farm Bill would be a boon to restoring populations of these birds there, but in areas like the southwestern corner of the state, weather plays a bigger role.
“Hope for a nice winter and a good spring and things will pick right back up,” Gross stated with a bit of optimism for 2018, “but more CRP would help too.”
Sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge seasons open on Sat. Sep. 9 and run through Sun. Jan. 7, 2018. Legal hunting times are one-half hour before sunrise to sunset. The daily limit for each bird is three, and hunters cannot have more than 12 in their possession. Final upland survey and brood count statistics will be available in the from the NDG&F in the next week or two.
(Featured Photo: Hunters will find lower numbers of both sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge this season due to dry conditions which hampered recruitment. Simonson Photo)