Starting to gain momentum: Sharptail outlook improves in North Dakota said NDGF upland game biologist Robinson

GRAND FORKS -- Sharp-tailed grouse numbers in North Dakota again are moving in the right direction after a big drop last year. "Grouse hunting is going to be good this year," said Aaron Robinson, upland game bird biologist for the North Dakota Ga...

Courtesy Photo by Rick Bohn In this 2007 photo, four male sharp-tail grouse display for a female sharp-tail grouse in central North Dakota. After a big drop from a year ago, sharp-tail grouse numbers are on the rise in North Dakota.

GRAND FORKS - Sharp-tailed grouse numbers in North Dakota again are moving in the right direction after a big drop last year.
“Grouse hunting is going to be good this year,” said Aaron Robinson, upland game bird biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Dickinson. “It’s pretty much across the state we’re seeing increased grouse numbers.”
North Dakota’s grouse season opens Saturday.
According to Robinson, results from brood count surveys show brood numbers are up about 70 percent from last year across the state. Hunters will encounter the highest sharptail numbers in the central and western parts of the state, which offer the best grouse habitat, but sharptail numbers also were up in eastern North Dakota, Robinson said.
Game and Fish crews conduct the brood survey beginning in mid-July, driving a series of routes across the state. This year, crews drove 181 routes and covered nearly 6,000 miles.
“All the staff in the Game and Fish Department does this so it’s a big effort,” Robinson said. “We drive a lot and look for a lot of different habitat types.”
Robinson said last winter, while cold, didn’t bring heavy snowfall, and the conditions were favorable for adult sharptails.
This spring, the abundance of cover on the landscape provided optimal nesting conditions. Good habitat typically means good bird numbers, Robinson said, which is why the department is so concerned about the loss of acreage enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program.
“This year is a prime example of how populations respond to habitat,” Robinson said. “As you lose CRP, you lose nesting cover.”
Robinson said heavy rains and excessively wet conditions will reduce sharptail numbers in localized areas, but hunters in most places can expect to encounter more birds.
The wet conditions also prevented farmers from planting crops in many areas this spring, resulting in fallow fields that sharptails and other ground-nesting birds were able to use for cover, Robinson said.
The vegetation that grew up in the idled fields provided habitat that was similar to CRP, in a roundabout way, Robinson said.
“That allowed the birds to do well because of what (vegetation) was remaining,” Robinson said. “In a normal year where every acre is put into crops, birds will not be able to respond like they had. You may not even break even.”
Eventually, Robinson said, the loss of CRP and other grassland habitat will catch up with populations of sharptails and other wildlife.
“This is an abnormal year, so if someone uses the argument that we don’t need CRP, they’re not understanding the big picture,” Robinson said.
Hunters early in the season can expect to encounter sharptails in brood groups dominated by juvenile birds. Areas rich in insect life, such as harvested alfalfa fields, will provide food for the birds early and late in the day, Robinson said, while thicker cover such as buffaloberries provides favored midday haunts.
Robinson said Hungarian partridge counts also were up 50 percent from last year, but after record lows from 2011 through 2013, the increase wasn’t substantial.
“It’s still going to be an opportunistic bird” for hunters, Robinson said. “What I tell hunters is if you’re out hunting sharptails or pheasants, if you get into a few Huns, consider yourself lucky, take a side trip and go harvest a few of those.
“I couldn’t even pin down the best areas for partridge because it’s so spotty.”
Robinson said the department is making a push this fall for hunters to turn in the wings from grouse and partridges they shoot. Biologists analyze the wings for information on everything from production and when the birds hatched to habitat conditions.
Game and Fish will provide hunters with postage-paid envelopes to submit wings, Robinson said, and the department needs about 1,500 wings for a statistically valid sample. Last year, he said, the department received only 67 partridge wings and 300 sharptail wings.
“It’s the most important data we get in terms of upland game,” Robinson said.
Hunters interested in receiving wing envelopes can visit the Game and Fish website at, the department’s main office in Bismarck at (701) 328-6300 or email . Envelopes also are available from district Game and Fish offices across the state.

Sharp-tailed grouse numbers also are up in Minnesota, where the species is limited to the northwest and east-central parts of the state.
Minnesota’s sharptail season opens Saturday.
Managers sample sharptail populations each spring by looking for male birds on their dancing grounds, called leks. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, this year’s survey tallied 9.8 sharptails per lek. That’s on par with the long-term average since 1980 but down from 13.6 in 2009, the highest count since 1980, the DNR said.
Sharptail counts have been as low as seven birds per dancing ground during the past 25 years.
Randy Prachar, manager of Roseau River Wildlife Management Area in northwest Minnesota, said he’s encouraged by the number of sharptail broods he’s seen this summer. The young birds look small for this time of year, he said, which could reflect a late hatch or a re-nesting effort.
“They’re flying but not flying real strong, and throughout the summer, I’d say in general they’re behind,” he said.
Sharptail hunting pales to ruffed grouse in Minnesota, which, with its abundance of forests, offers some of the best ruffed grouse hunting in the country. Last year, 6,700 hunters pursued sharptails in Minnesota, taking an estimated 7,130 birds.
By comparison, more than 81,000 Minnesota hunters shot nearly 289,000 ruffed grouse.

Related Topics: HUNTING
Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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