PIERRE, S.D. – Stable to increasing grouse populations will set the stage for South Dakota’s 2005 grouse season that opens Saturday, Sept. 17.
According to Game, Fish and Parks Regional Wildlife Manager Andy Lindbloom of Pierre, sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chicken populations in South Dakota are monitored primarily by lek surveys, hunter harvest and age ratios. Approximately 25 lek routes covering about 40-square miles each are surveyed every spring by department personnel, and results from these surveys represent a good cross-section of the grouse breeding population across the state.
Game, Fish and Parks lek surveys taken in 2005 indicate that the sharp-tailed grouse breeding population has remained relatively stable over the last year, while the prairie chicken breeding population appears to have increased by about 45 percent. Leks are areas where grouse congregate during the breeding season and compete for breeding opportunities.
"Harvest data are gathered through mail-in surveys that allow us to estimate the total number of grouse harvested annually, " Lindbloom said. "Last year, hunters harvested approximately 39,000 grouse, which is lower than the projected 52,000 in 2003 but very comparable to the 41,000 in 2002. We believe that grouse populations have decreased across the state over the last five years and so has hunter harvest. Although grouse numbers were more promising last year, we saw fewer hunters and consequently less harvest.
Age ratios are determined by looking at harvested birds and aging them into juvenile and adult categories. Specimens are collected through voluntary wing collection boxes set up by the U.S. Forest Service personnel on the Ft. Pierre National Grasslands. "Age ratios give us an idea of reproductive success," Lindbloom noted, "and in 2004 we saw better reproduction than in 2003."
Lindbloom pointed out that fall hunting predictions for grouse are not as easy and accurate as they are for pheasants. Harvest data and age ratios for grouse are gathered after the hunting season, and therefore these surveys only allow biologists to predict population trends after hunters have left the field for that year.
Spring lek counts are important for overall population monitoring, but they only indicate a trend of local breeding adults and not reproduction. Because most of the birds harvested during upland game bird seasons are young-of-year birds, a good brood survey can allow for decent predictions on how the fall hunting season will be. Pheasant behavior lends itself well to accurate brood surveys, grouse behavior does not. There just is not a current method that allows for accurate surveys of grouse broods.
"Fortunately, the department is completing a three-year research project on grouse reproduction on the Ft. Pierre National Grasslands," Lindbloom said. "This year, researchers again are documenting excellent nesting efforts, nesting success and brood survival. Given the promising lek survey results from this spring, and assuming similar reproduction trends occurred across the state, this information should equate to more birds for the grouse season opener this weekend.
Lindbloom reminds hunters to remember that pheasants may appear in some areas normally hunted for grouse. "Hen pheasants, young pheasants and grouse can appear very similar in color and size," he said, "so be sure that your target is in fact a grouse before you shoot."
Hunters also need to remember that they will be required to use nontoxic shot for grouse/prairie chicken and other small game hunting on the following public lands:
State Game Production Areas
Federal Waterfowl Production Areas
State Park and Recreation Areas and Lakeside Use Areas
State Water Access areas
National Waterfowl Refuges
U.S. Army Corps of Engineer lands
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation lands managed by Game, Fish, and Parks
Nontoxic shot is not required on national grasslands of the U.S. Forest Service, nor is it required on private lands or those lands enrolled in the Game, Fish and Parks Walk-In-Access program.