By Nick Simonson
Perhaps the most amazing number included in the North Dakota Game & Fish Department’s (NDG&F) recent release of upland tallies from the fall of 2020 was the jump of more than 52,000 estimated sharptailed grouse harvested over the previous season. Coming on improved nesting and recruitment of broods into the population, last autumn’s grouse harvest was also buoyed by a 43 percent increase in hunters pursuing the birds which can be found throughout much of the state. In total, an estimated 19,971 sharptailed grouse hunters took approximately 86,965 birds last fall, but long-term comparisons and this summer’s drought may put a damper on that excitement.
According to Jesse Kolar, NDG&F Upland Game Management Supervisor, the increased take of sharpies was due in part to more hunters pursuing them, following two seasons of improved nesting conditions and brood data. With the increase in bird numbers and word of better hunting getting around over the past two seasons, more sportsmen and women took to the field for the native upland species; the season for which begins earlier than ringneck pheasants, in mid-September, and runs into the first weekend of January. Even the relatively good numbers reported from 2020 belie longer term trends which aren’t as optimistic.
“It’s pretty significant, but it’s coming from almost record low harvest and hunter participation the last few years following the drought in 2017 when our population for sharptails really bottomed out,” Kolar comments, adding, “then last year and the year before, people were finding a lot more sharptailed grouse, especially in the east and central part of the state, more than what they were used to, so we had higher participation.”
Sharptailed grouse harvest estimates are based on a number of data sources including annual surveys which are sent out those who purchased a small game license; the number of licenses sold; and the samples provided through the NDG&F wing survey where biologists utilize hunter-submitted grouse wings to determine age and gender of birds and the relative abundance in counties of harvest. Kolar stated that all of those indicators were up year-over-year, but likely below longer-term trends which have been influenced from heightened numbers of birds harvested in the early 2000s, when CRP was at its height and more habitat helped increase grouse abundance.
The upswing evidenced in the 2020 tallies may be short-lived however, as indicators at the halfway point of the NDG&F 2021 summer roadside brood survey suggest a decrease in sharptailed grouse numbers.
“We were down pretty much at every number; our sharptails especially. Birds per mile being seen, broods per mile, and the chicks per adult when we do see broods; all those numbers were down roughly fifty percent. We’ll have more solid numbers in September,” Kolar suggests, once agents have totaled their observations when the survey concludes at the end of August.
While the drought conditions across much of the state throughout spring and summer likely impacted the quality of nesting habitat, and possibly the food sources for young grouse, those same dry conditions may also possibly be skewing survey data negatively for the state’s upland birds. Kolar holds out hope that those circumstances, and not poor reproduction, are what influence the number of birds observed thus far in the department’s annual survey.
“One potential saving grace is that our roadside surveys are designed for dewy mornings when the birds are coming to the bare ground on the roads to seek refuge from wet grass, and we haven’t had any dewy mornings so those birds might not have any incentive to go sit on the roadside like they normally do…but dew doesn’t explain that full fifty percent, so there’s definitely a true drop in the numbers,” Kolar cautions.
The NDG&F roadside survey wraps on Aug. 31 and results are typically provided to the public in the first week of September, where populations of ringneck pheasants, sharptailed grouse, Hungarian partridge, mourning doves and other upland species are estimated for the upcoming hunting seasons. This year’s sharptailed grouse season opens on Sept. 11 and runs through Jan. 2, 2022.
Nick Simonson is the lead writer and editor of Dakota Edge Outdoors.
Featured Photo: Hunters found good success for sharptailed grouse last year compared to recent seasons following the 2017 drought, but long term trends and effects of this summer’s drought may temper that excitement headed into September’s season opener for the native upland birds. Simonson Photo.