UPLAND GAME ROUNDUP: Pheasant, grouse counts up or unchanged from last year

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources released results from their spring surveys of pheasants and grouse this past week, and the results are mostly favorable.


The North Dakota Game and Fish Department and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources released results from their spring surveys of pheasants and grouse this past week, and the results are mostly favorable.

In North Dakota, spring pheasant counts are up about 10 percent statewide from last year, the Game and Fish Department said, while the DNR said spring drumming counts of ruffed grouse in Minnesota were unchanged from last year.

Here's a closer look at upland game prospects in the two states:

North Dakota

• Pheasants: Spring counts of crowing roosters were up 10 percent from last year. Stan Kohn, upland game management supervisor for Game and Fish, said the increases ranged from about 2 percent to 12 percent in the state's primary pheasant regions.


"A much improved production year for pheasants in spring 2014, coupled with the mild winter, produced a healthy breeding population this spring," Kohn said.

While the spring number is a positive indicator, Kohn said it does not predict what the fall population will look like. Brood surveys, which begin in mid-July and are completed by September, provide a much better estimate of summer pheasant production and what hunters might expect for a fall pheasant population.

Kohn said a higher breeding population is good for production if the weather cooperates and nesting habitat is available. "This spring's weather hasn't been ideal, but I don't think it has been a cause for major concern yet either," he said.

Of concern, Kohn said, is the continued loss of Conservation Reserve Program acres, variable commodity prices and native grassland conversion.

• Sharptails: Results from the spring sharp-tailed grouse census indicate a 22 percent increase in the number of male grouse counted compared to last year.

Statewide, 4,346 sharptails were observed on spring dancing grounds this year compared with 3,551 in 2014. Male grouse recorded per square mile increased from 3.4 to 4.2. More than 1,000 square miles were covered.

Aaron Robinson, upland game biologist for the Game and Fish Department in Dickinson, N.D., said the outlook for the 2015 hunting season is still premature as lek counts are a measure of population trends and not a reliable predictor of hunter success.

"Preliminary observations indicate good residual cover for a favorable hatch, but this is heavily influenced by timing, duration, location of severe precipitation and low temperatures," Robinson said.


Game and Fish will have a better handle on fall hunting prospects after completing its late-summer brood surveys.


• Ruffed grouse: Results from the DNR's spring drumming count survey showed counts were unchanged from last year.

That follows a significant increase of 34 percent from 2013 to 2014.

"While it can be tenuous to compare the results of only one year to the next, we suspect the cold, wet spring of 2014 may have hurt grouse production," said Charlotte Roy, DNR grouse project leader. "We also had comparatively little snow last year for roosting, which may have influenced overwinter survival."

The DNR conducts the survey by listening for the "drumming" sound males make as they rapidly beat their wings in an effort to attract a mate. This year, the DNR and cooperators from 12 organizations surveyed 126 routes across the state.

Compared to last year's survey, this year's results showed no statistical change in any region of the state. In the northeast survey region, which is the core of grouse range in Minnesota, counts were 1.3 drums per stop; in the northwest, there were 1.0 drums per stop; in the central hardwoods, 0.7 drums per stop; and in the southeast, 0.4 drums per stop.

Ruffed grouse populations tend to rise and fall on a 10-year cycle. Counts vary from about 0.6 drums per stop during years of low grouse abundance to about 2.0 during years of high abundance.


Drumming counts are an indicator of the breeding population, but the number of birds present during the fall hunting season also depends on nesting success and chick survival during the spring and summer.

• Sharptails: Counts in the traditional sharp-tailed grouse areas of northwest and east-central Minnesota were similar to last year. This year's statewide average of 9.8 grouse counted per dancing ground was similar to the long-term average since 1980. The 2009 average of 13.6 was as high as during any year since 1980. During the past 25 years, the sharptail index has been as low as seven birds counted per dancing ground.

Prairie chicken lottery

The lottery for Minnesota's 2015 prairie chicken season opened Wednesday, and 126 permits are available for this year's hunt.

Applications are available wherever hunting and fishing licenses are sold, and the deadline to apply is Aug. 14. The nine-day season begins Sept. 26 and is open to Minnesota residents only.

"Prairie chickens rely on healthy prairies and grasslands, and having a prairie chicken hunt brings more awareness to this unique species and its habitat needs," said Steve Merchant, DNR wildlife populations and regulations manager. "Prairie conservation and prairie chickens go hand in hand."

Hunters will be charged a $4 application fee and can apply individually or in groups up to four. Prairie chicken licenses cost $23.

The hunt will be conducted in 11 prairie chicken quota areas in west-central Minnesota between St. Hilaire in the north and Breckenridge in the south. As many as 20 percent of the permits in each area will be issued to landowners or tenants of 40 acres or more of prairie or grassland property within the permit area for which they applied.


The season bag limit is two prairie chickens per hunter. Licensed prairie chicken hunters will be allowed to take sharp-tailed grouse while legally hunting prairie chickens.

Last year, hunters shot an estimated 95 prairie chickens, with 54 percent of hunters taking at least one bird. Hunter success varies considerably from year to year, especially when poor weather prevents hunters from going out in the field.

Pheasant rooster
North Dakota Game and Fish Department photo

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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