It was a beautiful sight to see. A good point always is.
I’d been been walking through knee high grass near the bottom of a small draw when the small munsterlander in front of me locked up on a point so hard he was quivering.
My camera clicked away recording the moment. I knew, and the dog’s owner Chance Stoeser knew, that he was pointing a pheasant. The cover, a mix of thick grass, snow berries and taller shrubs was way too thick for the prairie chickens we were chasing. The point was great but mildly disappointing we really wanted the other guy in the draw with us to see some chickens up close.
The third guy walking this particular draw with us, Hank Shaw, an award winning wild food blogger, chef and author of such wild game cookbooks as Duck, Duck Goose and Buck Buck Moose, had never killed a chicken before.
Prairie chickens and their cousins the sharptail grouse are the greatest upland game birds on the planet. That’s an opinion I hold dearly in my heart and wear proudly on my sleeve. Which is why it’s a big deal for me to help other folks kill one. Hunting them is the best way to learn how to appreciate them.
Chance was to my left and above me on the draw’s south side with his other munsterlander. Hank was to my right on the north side of the draw. I’d volunteered to walk down the middle because all I was carrying was a camera. This may have been a Saturday morning but the life a newspaperman demands sacrifice.
I’ve hunted prairie chickens and sharptails enough that I shouldn’t be surprised at the things they do. But when the bird being pointed at finally shot into the sky and I saw it’s square black tail, my heart leapt.
The words “GROUSE, GROUSE, GROUSE,” exploded from my mouth. That’s a habit I’ve picked up over the last few years of taking pheasant hunters out after grouse. They sometimes have trouble shooting at brown birds. Hank pulled up and fired both barrels of his 20 gauge, striking the bird once and we both watched the bird sail a quarter mile west toward another hunter who picked it up.
Another bird flushed. This time up by Chance who fired and missed. A third bird launched itself into the sky bee-lining down the draw and away from the guns. Hank fired again, dropping the handsome young prairie chicken on the spot.
As first birds go, it was a pretty good one. It was a male and because it was still early in the season, it’s feathers were still coming in. The bird’s crop was full of wild rosehips. Once the excitement was over, I noticed rosehips carpeted the inside of the draw I’d just walked through.
What exactly a James Beard Award winning chef who lives in California was doing in the rolling grasslands and farm fields south and west of Iona, South Dakota on the first Saturday in October actually was about more than killing a prairie chicken or two. Hank and collection of other folks from around the country had been invited to participate in the North American Grouse Partnership’s first-ever dream grouse hunt.
There are four species of prairie grouse; lesser and greater prairie chickens, sage grouse and sharptail grouse. Fort the most part, all of them need vast expanses of grassland to thrive. In the cases of lesser prairie chickens and sage grouse, their habitats have shrunk so much that both species have found themselves candidates for the federal Endangered Species List.
I’d heard about the hunt and had asked if I could tag along to write about it. There are some big issues involved with prairie grouse, not the least of which is their continued decline throughout much of their historic ranges. If grouse, including greater prairie chickens, continue to struggle there’s a real chance they could find themselves on the endangered species list.
Prairie grouse have been stuck playing second fiddle to pheasants and ducks in the great North American conservation symphony. Ducks and pheasants have passionate communities dedicated to both hunting and conserving them, grouse do too but they’re a fraction of the size. That fact is both frustrating and sad to me. But the reality is, prairie grouse are tougher to hunt and live a long way from any major population centers. They just haven’t had a chance to develop the same following as ducks and pheasants.
Last weekend’s hunt was an effort to tell some folks about what the grouse partnership does now and will be doing in the near future as the 2018 Farm Bill is negotiated. The organization chose to hold its first hunt in South Dakota, because this state, is one of the few places in the world where prairie chicken numbers have been growing over the long-term. Few South Dakotans know just how great a thing that is.
Hank, for his part, took three grouse home.