The outlook for our native prairie birds (sharptails and prairie chickens) and the well-established import, the gray (Hungarian) partridge, is mixed this year. Severe drought across much of the Great Plains has had negative impacts on habitat. As this report is being posted, landowners—especially from Kansas up to South Dakota—have received permission to cut hay or graze livestock on their Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres. A very hot summer may also have resulted in some losses to newborn chicks.
Although last year’s grouse harvest (chickens and sharpies combined) was down somewhat in SOUTH DAKOTA, the estimated 48,000 birds bagged was still above average for the last decade. This year’s spring lek counts were similar to last year for prairie chickens, and well above the long-term average. Sharptail count numbers were down somewhat. Because of the nature and habitats of the birds, brood surveys aren’t a very reliable means of judging nesting success. However, weather conditions, in general, should have been positive for good reproduction. While sharptails have a broader range, prairie chickens are found only in the central part of the state. That region is generally the best for both species. The South Dakota website has an excellent map that shows grouse density at http://gfp.sd.gov/hunting/small-game/prairie-chicken-ruffed-grouse.aspx
Last year, an estimated 6,000 hunters in NEBRASKA harvested about 17,000 prairie grouse. Like South Dakota, that total is sharptails and chickens combined. This year, the lek surveys remained stable. However, reports from the rural mail carrier survey indicated that prairie chicken numbers are up statewide with the exception of the southwest, where the drought is the worst. The drought will also hurt the special prairie chicken season in southeast Nebraska due to habitat losses. The best region for prairie grouse in Nebraska remains the Sand Hills, where bird numbers are up. That region won’t suffer as much from habitat loss on CRP ground because it has less row crop farming than other parts of the state.