Spring Grouse Counts Strong Predictor for Season

Nick Simonson

By Nick Simonson

North Dakota’s recently released sharptailed grouse counts are a strong predictor of what hunters will encounter each fall in the field. This year’s tally of birds seen on spring mating grounds, called leks, showed an overall decline across the Roughrider state and early nesting attempts were likely hampered by late April blizzards across the birds’ western range, along with colder and damper conditions statewide into the month of May.  On top of the decreased counts, this combination of challenging conditions likely thwarted early nesting attempts and could possibly blunt recruitment of new grouse into the population, according to Jesse Kolar, Upland Game Supervisor with the North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F).

“For grouse, I’d say our spring counts are a little more reliable than for pheasants. For pheasants it seems like it’s 100 percent related to reproduction. Grouse are a little bit slower to have their boom years, so usually the spring counts are a little more predictive,” he advises about the dip in observed birds, adding, “we were down 13 percent statewide and that varied; [there were] a little bit stronger declines in the southwest.  There were noticeable declines the further east you went and most of that corresponded with what we saw last year on our brood route index for reproduction in upland game. We saw quite a few broods with fewer chicks than normal.”

Last year’s drought impacted the number of observed broods and the sizes of those seen by NDG&F agents surveying upland game on routes throughout the state in late summer.  The dry conditions, which limited cover and reduced the production of insects required for young grouse to grow and survive, likely halved the number of birds normally brought into the population during the summer of 2021.

“That was confirmed with all the wings that hunters sent us in the fall. Again, normally we see two-to-one juveniles-to-adults, and [in 2021] we saw one-to-one, so lower reproduction last year led us to this year’s slight declines,” Kolar explains. 

One bright spot for this season is the regrowth of the drought-hampered grasses on the landscape, as the spring snow storms, and notable rain events have helped habitat recover from the dry conditions of 2021.  In turn, this has increased production of insect forage for grouse chicks and allowed vegetation to grow thicker and taller to provide broods with the needed cover to avoid avian predators such as hawks and to hide from ground predators as well.  While sparse early grass conditions in hayed areas and those spaces where drought simply halted growth were not good for grouse nests, later attempts will likely be more successful where that vegetation grew back.

“They’ll be on nests from late-April all the way through, sometimes into early August.  So, a lot of the early nesting season probably was a wash. First of all, some of the very early nests were during those April snow storms and then the storms and wet weather was pretty tough on incubating birds, especially in the beginning of the season when we didn’t have as much cover,” Kolar states of this year’s grouse nesting cycle, continuing, “early nesting was probably a loss here, and unfortunately that’s usually when nests have the most eggs.  Their second and third nesting attempts will have fewer eggs each time.  They might lay 12-to-15 eggs the first nest and then ten or eight in the next nest.  We’ll see what that means, hopefully this additional cover will protect the chicks and the nests that are out there late this summer and give us some reproduction this year.”

NDG&F employees and agents are currently conducting roadside surveys for pheasants, grouse, and partridge to get a handle on where populations of those species and others such as mourning doves are at heading into fall.  The survey began on July 20 and runs until August 31, with results published by the agency in early September.  The North Dakota sharptailed grouse hunting season opens on Sept. 10, along with ruffed grouse, Hungarian partridge, and tree squirrels.

Simonson is the lead writer and editor of Dakota Edge Outdoors.

Featured Photo: Hunters will likely find fall sharptail hunting more challenging, as bird numbers dipped coming out of the drought, and early season nesting attempts were likely unsuccessful due to snow, cold temperatures and increased moisture. Simonson Photo.

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