The official 2021 Prairie Grouse Hunting Forecast put out by the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department predicts a good season for this year, but not necessarily for 2022.

The Game, Fish and Parks forecast reported that the 2021 prairie grouse hunting outlook is mixed, but there is a silver lining. The report said habitat and weather conditions were favorable and let to record lek counts during spring. Lek is grouse dancing grounds during mating seasons.

But there’s a downside as well. The department’s forecast said warmer than average temperatures combined with drier than usual precipitation in 2021 quickly deteriorated grassland habitats throughout the prairie grouse range. That will make next year’s season fall short compared to this season.

“We expect prairie grouse production to be hampered by these conditions,” the forecast stated. “Although production may be below average, hunters may still encounter good numbers of adult prairie grouse due to historic lek counts this spring. Current range conditions and wariness of adult birds might make hunting more challenging than the past few seasons.”

The sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chicken hunting season started across South Dakota on Sept. 18. The season goes to Jan. 2, with a daily limit of three birds and a possession limit of 15. Hunting is from sunrise to sunset.

Both species — collectively referred to as prairie grouse — exist throughout the state. The geographical area in South Dakota with the highest densities of both prairie chicken and the sharp-tailed grouse is the central part of the state, including all of Hughes County and the eastern half of Stanley County.

“The prairie grouse forecast was due to record lek counts this spring, thanks to the weather and favorable habitat conditions,” Game, Fish and Parks spokesman Nick Harrington said. “A lek — think of a big stage with the males competing to get the females’ attention. Hot and dry spring conditions hampered the production season, leaving older and more experienced birds out there.”

When these season dates apply, the required $33 resident Small Game hunting tag includes ruffed grouse, partridge, and other upland birds — pheasant, quail, and crow. The Small Game tag does not include turkey or waterfowl — mostly ducks and geese. The tag also includes specific mammals, most of them being varmints.

The $121 nonresident Small Game hunting tag is for only 10-days, broken into two five-day periods.

Season extension

A proposal last April wanted to extend the grouse season to Jan. 31, matching the pheasant season the state expanded the previous year. The Game, Fish and Parks Commission put out a request for public comment for 30 days.

But the commission had very little public comment feedback — only one person — on the grouse season proposal, and the commission’s deadline to set the dates for the upcoming grouse season approached fast.

The commission’s only comment came from a Black Hawk resident who wanted considerations for wildlife watchers instead of just hunters.

“I wish to be able to see grouse when I am outdoors,” she commented. “I wish you to reduce the hunting pressure on sharp-tailed grouse and greater prairie chicken so wildlife watchers have a better opportunity to see them.”

She added she is concerned about prairie chicken losses across its range and suggested South Dakota should instead increase hunting for exotic pheasants that compete with native prairie grouse.

Harrington said that the rest of the upland bird seasons were part of the same package for the commissioner’s consideration. Chad Switzer, Game, Fish and Parks wildlife program manager, presented no recommended changes to the pheasant and grouse hunting seasons. The commission voted unanimously not to extend the grouse season for the next few years.

Harvests

The pheasant 2020-2021 season saw a marked change in harvesting results. Harrington referred to the 2021 Ringneck Outlook.

“This is the document we very recently — this week actually — put together to share information for hunters on what to expect out in the field pursuing pheasants this season,” Harrington said on Sept. 16. “Last year, there were 1,108,420 pheasants harvested by 121,331 hunters. We also saw 27,000 birds harvested in January, which was the first year of the season extension. The (future) season will continue to run through January 31.”

Though the grouse season was a month shorter than the pheasant season, the harvest numbers remained high. According to the Prairie Chicken and Sharp-tailed Grouse Harvest Report supplied by Harrington, 86,796-resident and 66,540-nonresident licenses were issued that allowed holders to hunt prairie grouse. The licenses also allow the holders to hunt pheasants.

The state sent Grouse surveys to 30,000 hunters.

“Based on survey responses indicating at least one day of hunting grouse, there were a projected 10,487 resident and 6,389 nonresident grouse hunters,” the survey results found. “A projected total of 67,261 grouse were harvested — 48,947 by residents, 18,314 by nonresidents — during the 2020 season.”

The 2021 Prairie Grouse Hunting forecast is the basis for the Harvest Report.

“Counts of males on these traditional breeding season display areas provide a local population index of the adult population,” the Game, Fish and Parks forecast reported. “Like other upland game birds such as pheasants, prairie grouse are generally short-lived — 50 percent annual survival — with high reproductive potential. Young-of-year birds typically outnumber adult birds in the fall population. For this reason, spring lek counts are not necessarily a good predictor of fall population levels or hunter success. Spring lek counts are a good indicator of long-term trend in adult population. Lek surveys conducted in central S.D. by department staff and U.S. Forest Service indicated record high counts in 2021.”

The forecast cited this summer’s drought reducing insect abundance and heat stress for the loss of eggs and chicks.

“Last year, portions of the primary prairie grouse range were abnormally dry with portions of central South Dakota being drought free through much of the prairie grouse nesting and brood-rearing season,” the forecast stated. “This offered favorable conditions for prairie grouse production which was observed in the high young to adult age ratio in 2020 and record 2021 spring lek counts. This year, a vast majority of the primary grouse range in central and western SD experienced a severe to extreme drought with portions of southwest SD experiencing abnormally dry conditions.”

Del Bartels | 605-224-7301

Reporter Del Bartels, a born and raised South Dakotan and a graduate from Black Hills State University, was the editor of a weekly newspaper for 17 years.

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