The Grouse Grand Slam

February 15, 2009 by  

By Doug Leier

Prairie Chicken

Prairie Chicken

Recent talk of a possible prairie chicken hunting season in eastern North Dakota has, not surprisingly, given rise to the concept of a “grouse grand slam,” or the opportunity to hunt four different grouse species this fall. The last time this was possible was more than 60 years ago, at the tail-end of a dramatic rise and fall of the state’s prairie chicken population.

The good news is that through restoration efforts, the number of prairie

Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse

chickens – also called pinnated grouse – is back to where a limited hunting season is possible. Ruffed grouse in the Turtle Mountains and Pembina Hills are at the lower end of their population cycle, but biologists predict better days ahead. Sharp-tailed grouse maintain a healthy presence over much of the state.

The sage grouse is on the other end of the spectrum. While these birds have always inhabited only a small slice of southwestern North Dakota, the sage grouse population within that area is generating concern. It’s a concern shared all across the sage grouse’s native range in the northwestern United States.

Sage Grouse Biology

Sage grouse depend on big sage (Artmesia tridentata). About 75 percent of their food supply is derived from the plant. Sagebrush grows quite slowly; in fact, dense stands of sagebrush can take more than 25 years to recover from fires. As such, these birds can be greatly affected by wildfires, but intentional destruction of any sage is devastating to grouse populations.

North Dakota’s other grouse species usually breed after their first years and are persistent renesters –initiating a nest after their first attempt is destroyed or unsuccessful– until they either produce a brood or run out of time.

The average rate for renesting for sage grouse varies sporadically from 5% to 85%.

History

The sage grouse’s range in North Dakota is about the same as it was historically. Other prairie creatures such as grizzly bear, wolves and elk once roamed much of the state, but now are gone or remain in only small numbers. Sage grouse were always confined to the black sage landscape, primarily in Bowman and Slope counties.

Sharptail Grouse

Sharptail Grouse

Like sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens, sage grouse gather each spring at the same place, called a lek or strutting ground. Game and Fish Department biologists observe these grounds each year to count the number strutting males.

In 2004, biologists counted 144 male sage grouse on 16 active grounds, according to Jerry Kobriger, Game and Fish upland game management supervisor, Dickinson. That compares to 174 males counted in 2003.

The 2004 count is actually 17% below average for the last 10 years and it’s the long-term population trend that is raising yellow flags. In 1984, for instance, observers counted 367 male sage grouse during the spring count. The highest number was 542 birds in 1953.

Hunting

Sage grouse hunting opportunities have never been liberal. One bird per hunter is the standard limit, and the season extends for only three days. Typical annual harvest is 25-40 birds from a fall population estimated at 1,000 to 1,500 birds in recent years.

This year, Game and Fish is considering a change that won’t necessarily reduce the harvest, but may change the make-up. For many years, sage grouse season has started the Monday following the sharp-tailed grouse opener, which is usually the second weekend in September. By holding the sage grouse season a couple of weeks later, biologists believe hunters will take fewer adult female birds and more adult male or young-of-the-year birds.

A common reaction to the sage grouse population struggle is to “just close the season.” Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. As for other game birds, regulated hunting is not a significant factor in population peaks and valleys. Weather is often a factor in short-term shifts, while habitat changes are usually responsible for long-term gains or losses.

Sage Grouse across the U.S.

Sage Grouse

Sage Grouse

In some Western states, sage grouse have experienced 40-80 percent population declines since the mid-1900s. That’s on par with North Dakota’s experience, and part of the reason a coalition of environmental groups, in December 2003, submitted a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the greater sage grouse as an endangered species throughout its range.

In April 2004, the FWS issued a “positive finding,” relating to the petition. This means the service found enough biological information to warrant a further review of sage grouse status. After that review, the FWS will decide whether listing is or is not warranted. A third option is “warranted but precluded,” meaning the species is added to the candidate list, but work on it is precluded by other, higher priority species.

The final decision likely won’t come until early in 2005, and it could influence future sage grouse hunting seasons in North Dakota. It would indeed be an unfortunate development if, a year or two from now, the number of huntable North Dakota grouse species was again down to three.


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