Hunting & Heritage  |  08/24/2023

2023 Prairie Grouse Primer


Prairie grouse hunting prospects good for 2023

Our autumns, and those of our bird dogs, are not endless. And each fall is not forever. Go. Follow your dog. Feel the breeze on your neck, the sun on your face. Smell the grass. Top a hill. Drink it all in. Keep going.

Somewhere out there, in the middle of nothing and of everything, you will find birds.

As the guy who gets to assign, gather, review and edit-up all the state-by-state prairie grouse hunting rundowns in this annual and much-anticipated report from Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, it is always somewhat amazing to me how a fairly consistent theme emerges from across the vast sweep of America’s prairie grouse country.

This year, I boil it down to this:

While pesky dry conditions to downright drought have been pestering prairie grouse country for the past two years, enough rains returned this spring and summer to help grow grass back better to help hatch more birds and produce more insects to feed young broods.

Are the conditions the same everywhere? Of course not. That’s what these state reports are about. Should you hunt sharp-tailed grouse, prairie chickens or sage grouse this fall? You bet. You shouldn’t even have to ask.

Our autumns, and those of our bird dogs, are not endless. And each fall is not forever. Go. Follow your dog. Feel the breeze on your neck, the sun on your face. Smell the grass. Top a hill. Drink it all in. Keep going.

Somewhere out there, in the middle of nothing and of everything, you will find birds.

Tom Carpenter, Editor – Prairie Grouse Primer 2023

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State-by-State Reports - Click to Expand

Prairie Grouse Primer 2023: Idaho

Should be a good year for prairie grouse hunting in Idaho

By Jack Hutson

Idaho’s prairie grouse seem to be responding well to the greater emphasis placed on their management in recent years. However, the harsh weather wildcard was played over most of their range last winter. How did they cope? Let’s find out.

Sage Grouse

Idaho Fish & Game (IDF&G) biologist Michelle Commons Kemner leads the prairie grouse management effort in Idaho and was willing to share her views on prairie grouse prospects. “In southeastern Idaho was a lot tougher to access to count leks this spring,” she says. “Though the areas hardest hit may have suffered some winter mortality, poor lek count is likely due to the inability to access the leks during peak attendance than low overwinter survival.”

Indeed, hydrologists reported that a record-breaking month of snowfall in March contributed substantially to an overall record season of snow in southern Idaho. That moisture set up good habitat conditions for nesting.

What can sage grouse hunters expect this fall? Kemner says, “Sage grouse production in 2022 was better than it has been in the past 6 years. In the areas we could get to this spring, lek counts were generally up.”

Kemner’s outlook was positive, “Biologists continued to see hens attending leks into May. With excellent May and June weather, chicks hatched with plenty of insects, forbs and cover. All things considered; I think sage grouse hunting should be good to excellent this year.”


For sharp-tailed grouse, Southeast Regional IDF&G Biologist Erik Bartholomew, reports: “We have been able (in the past) to start lek observations as early as early as March, and easily by April. This year, there was still a couple feet of snow on most of the leks, and drifts made getting to them impossible.”

Erik spends a good deal of his time in the areas inhabited by sharptails. He is an upland hunter and enjoys his task revising aging CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) acreage into game-friendly bunch-grasses and forbs.

“It was a weird spring for sharptails,” Bartholomew says. “The snow levels seemed to cause sharptails to dance wherever they could and that, along with road conditions, made counting difficult.”

His prediction? “I would say, due to the good nesting conditions, sharptailed grouse prospects look a little better than average.” Kemner agrees: “Although difficult to access, overall lek counts were generally up compared to the previous 2 years and, given the good overall conditions, hunting should be a good to excellent year for sharptail hunting.”

What to Look For

Hunters should look for sage grouse on ridges and plateaus with sparse sage and ample grass. In early season, they will be close to water sources. A good tactic is to start near the water source and move in ever increasing circles around that source. Sharptail prefer grassy expanses: Concentrate on the tops of hills and ridges where the grass is shortest. Grouse ranges can over-lap so know your target!

Keep in mind that chukar and Hungarian partridge season opens Sept 17, offering a mixed-bag opportunity where their range overlaps.

Early in the season will likely be warm so pay close attention to the condition of your dog and be wary of rattle snakes. Some grouse zones are covered in cactus and jagged basalt rock, well-made dog paw protection is advised.

License, Tags & Permits and Season Details

As part of its monitoring process, IDF&G developed a first-come first-served tag system to hunt sage-grouse in one of 12 zones. Each zone has a limited quota of total tags and maximum of two tags per hunter. Due to its slight complexity, it is very important that prospective hunters research sage grouse information here.

Sales for the limited sage grouse tags began August 1st and are required for the season that runs from September 16 to October 31. Price for Residents: $22.75, Non-Residents: $74.25.

A permit good for only sharptailed grouse may be purchased any time for the season that runs October 1 through 31. Price for Residents: $4.75 - Non-Residents: $17.75.

In addition, you will need an Idaho annual hunting license; (adult) Residents: $15.75 – Non-Residents: $141.75 or 3-Day License $75.75. There is the addition of an Access-Depredation Fee of $5 Resident (adult) / $10 Non-Resident (adult).

For more information, check Idaho’s upland hunting regulations.

Jack Hutson is a reformed (retired) college professor turned gun dog trainer/consultant and vagabond upland bird hunter.

Prairie Grouse Primer 2023: Kansas

Kansas prairie chickens on a rebound year

By Tom Carpenter

One of my fondest prairie grouse hunting memories ever happened in Kansas.

Mid-morning. A September breeze just kicking in. High on the lee of a Smoky Hills ridge. Lark (she was one day shy of 6 months old!) locks up. Another meadowlark perhaps?

I hustle over and … sheer magic! She is in a staredown practically face-to-face with a young prairie chicken. Thank you, gods of the hunt!

The bird took off as I fumbled, flabbergastedly, to raise the shogun. Thank those gods again: I somehow tumbled the prairie chicken from the sky.

We experienced deep joy, sitting there – bird dog, bird and lucky guest -- looking out over the endless grassy hills.

Prairie grouse hunters will be feeling a little more of that kind of joy this fall in Kansas. We talked to four reliable resources for the take.

Kent Fricke, KDWP

Kent Fricke is small game coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (KDWP) and always shares information straight-up and to-the-point.

How did spring and summer weather affect prairie grouse nesting success and chick survival? “Several years of severe drought in much of Kansas may have limited prairie chicken nesting success in spring 2023 throughout the state,” Fricke says. “But abundant rain in June and July created excellent habitat conditions for broods that were able to fledge.”

What are the habitat conditions looking like? “Overall, habitat conditions for prairie chickens are good in Kansas,” says Fricke. “Good precipitation this summer has led to good vegetation structure in prairie chicken country, which will likely increase nesting success in spring 2024.”

But that moisture also helped in the nearer term: “Prairie chicken season should be fair in 2023,” he says. That estimation is a notch up from the past couple seasons.

Where to go? “The Smoky Hills region of northcentral Kansas has both good densities of prairie chickens matched with public access to appropriate habitat.” Fricke says. “Prairie chicken numbers are also relatively strong in northwestern Kansas and this region receives much less attention from hunters.” More on that later.

Douglas Spale

Douglas Spale, PF & QF National Board Member, serious bird dogger and avid upland hunter, has been traveling Kansas a lot this summer and likes what he has being seeing on the ground.

“The two historical strongholds in Kansas for prairie chickens are the Flint Hills and Smoky Hills,” says Spale. “Although these areas are still in varying levels of drought, both areas received rains throughout spring and summer, which has made for better cover than last year.’’ That should have benefitted birds – for better cover, and for better insect production to feed chicks.

“Late summer rains have been keeping everything green for the moment,” he adds. “We are keeping our fingers crossed for Kansas prairie chicken hunting this year. I feel good.”

“The short-prairie grass in Kansas is looking good … the grass is well above your ankles,” Spale says. “Everything looks better than it has the past couple years.”

Spale recommends the western portion of the Smoky Hills and the southern part of the Flint Hills.

Jake Thomas

Jake Thomas is a falconer, cattle rancher and bird dog trainer in the Flint Hills. What order are those priorities? That depends on the day! But regarding prairie grouse:

“The Flint Hills are still feeling the effects of the last couple years of drought,” Thomas says. “But I am hopeful there will be more successful broods than last year, based on the number of grasshoppers and other insects I have seen this summer.” That is good news we haven’t heard the past two summers.

Jim Millensifer

Jim Millensifer is a longtime Pheasants Forever supporter hailing from Oakley in northwestern Kansas. He is a serious prairie chicken hunter who lives in prairie chicken country.

“While hunting turkeys this past spring in northwestern Kansas, I saw many more prairie chickens than I had expected too,” Millensifer says. “That was a pleasant surprise. We cover some real ground in turkey season, and chickens were widespread.”

“It is no secret that drought has hit hard in Kansas the past couple years,” Millensifer adds. “But I think quail and chickens fared better than pheasants.”

Echoing Spale, Millensifer marvels at the grass this year in his part of Kansas. “Our ‘shortgrass’ is ending up at 18 to 22 inches tall. That’s good for brooding young birds. That is where you want to hunt in the early season.”

Northwestern Kansas will see better prairie chicken hunting than it did last year. “Also notable: We have tons of walk-in ground up here that opens on September 15,” says Millensifer.

“We may have come into spring with bird numbers on the low side from all the drought, but production should have been good,” says Millensifer. “In 2022 we had 5 inches of rain from mid-May to mid-August. In 2023, that same time period saw 24 inches of rain.”

“Get out and walk,” he concludes, “and you will find birds.”


The 2023 greater prairie chicken season in Kanas this year runs from September 15 to January 31, 2024. The daily bag limit is 2 birds.

“Kansas requires a Prairie Chicken Stamp for hunters,” says Fricke. “The funds aid in collecting information for managing the species.” Good dollars spent indeed.

Fricke also notes: “Kansas has a closed zone and hunters will want to review the boundaries to ensure that they aren't accidentally straying inside the area where prairie chicken hunting is off limits.” The closed zone protects endangered lesser prairie chickens in southwestern Kansas. View a map here.

Tom Carpenter and his little Epagneul Breton Lark go on many a sojourn for prairie grouse all fall.

Prairie Grouse Primer 2023: Minnesota

Minnesota offers good sharptail hunting again

By Tom Carpenter

It’s funny.

Minnesota exports tons of prairie grouse hunters to countryside far and wide. But there are plenty of sharptails at home for the hunter willing to travel to the state’s northwestern quadrant. With all the public land available, what is stopping you?

And I’ll offer you this: If you are a traveling hunter, you are going to run into more hunters in the famous prairie grouse places to the west than you are the grasslands and brushlands of Minnesota.

Minnesota has prairie chickens too, but that residents-only lottery draw hunt (season limit: two birds) has happened for 2023.

Winter didn't hurt Grouse Populations

“We had good snow roosting conditions and comparatively mild winter temperatures,” says Charlotte Roy, Grouse Project Leader for the Minnesota DNR. “So, winter wasn’t too bad. Winter just lasted well into the spring, which likely delayed nesting.” But snowmelt added valuable moisture to the landscape.

“The snow lacked a crust most of the winter, which provided ideal snow roosts,” says Kyle Arola, Manager of the Thief Lake Wildlife WMA. “The birds had plenty of winter food sources in our area, and came through the winter just fine.”

“No problems up here,” says Scott Laudenslager, Baudette Area Wildlife Area Supervisor. “Deep snow is tough on predators, but allows grouse to snow roost.”

Spring and Summer Nesting Conditions were Good

“We had a late spring with snow remaining on the ground through April 16. It has been dry all spring and summer, resulting in favorable nesting conditions,” says Arola.

“With the drier weather conditions, it should have been a good hatch and brood-rearing season,” says Nicholas Snavely, Fergus Falls Area Wildlife Supervisor with the Minnesota DNR.

“Spring’s wetness led to vigorous growth by grasses and forbs,” says Ross Hier, retired DNR wildlife manager in the Crookston area. “This, coupled with what I view as the best nesting season weather in this part of the state in many years (few if any big rainfalls, generally warm weather and no savage wind and/or hailstorms), led to strong nesting efforts by sharptails and prairie chickens.”

“Rain has been spotty in our work area,” says Justin Pitt, Assistant Area Wildlife Manager in Bemidji for the DNR. “Overall we are dry and in droughty conditions, which can make nesting conditions favorable. Yet we had a few timely rains.”

“The hatch seemed to come off early relative to most years with good-sized broods,” says Randy Prachar, Roseau River WMA Supervisor for the DNR. “Most of the young birds observed recently can sustain long-distance flight. They are noticeably smaller than adults yet; the dry conditions may have limited their food somewhat, though if they like grasshoppers, there are plenty of them available.”

Birds are there, Public Land is Endless

“The habitat is looking great and will be even better if we start receiving some precipitation,” says Arola at Thief Lake.

“Sharptails appear to be gaining range and population” in Minnesota, says Hier. “Some of this may be attributed to more brush on the landscape on large grassland tracts.”

“Habitat is in good shape because we had some rain in late June and July,” says Laudenslager in Baudette.

“I’m optimistic for the grouse season,” says Prachar from the Roseau River area. “Despite warning signs of habitat loss due to CRP acreage loss, our local sharptail population continues to hold up pretty well. More people have been targeting sharptails on the Roseau River and Roseau Lake WMAs in recent years; I expect that to continue as long as populations hold up.”

“We are seeing sharptails in pockets across the work area,” says Emily Hutchins, Area Wildlife Supervisor in the Thief River Fall and Erskine area. “Our season prospects are about average.”

“For the most sharptails in Minnesota, look to the far northwestern counties of Kittson, Roseau and Marshall,” advises Arola.

Prairie Chicken Notes

“We had great nesting conditions for prairie chickens,” says Ron Baden, DNR Area Wildlife Supervisor in Detroit Lakes. “The lack of rain helped chick survival. Prairie chickens had great nesting success and we are seeing some big broods of on the landscape.”

“Across our prairie chicken range, habitat is doing okay, but we are not seeing much new habitat though, in the form of CRP,” adds Baden. “Tree encroachment a never-ending problem on the prairie in Minnesota.”


Minnesota’s sharp-tailed grouse season opens September 16 and closes November 29. The daily limit is 3 sharptails with a possession limit of 6. Check out details, and a map of the open sharptail zone, on the Minnesota DNR’s grouse page.

Prairie chicken tags for the residents-only season (2 bird limit for the season) have been drawn.

Tom Carpenter and his little Epagneul Breton Lark go on many a sojourn for prairie grouse all fall.

Prairie Grouse Primer 2023: Nebraska


By Anthony Hauck

“They look exceptionally good,” Greg Wright, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service, says of grassland habitat conditions in Nebraska’s Sandhills. “I would call this year’s nesting conditions as good as it gets.”

Wright oversees some of the largest intact prairies in the United States — tracts that are home to both greater prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse. He says it is rare when nothing — a 4-inch rain, hail, or a bad grasshopper hatch — scuttles the upland hatch.

Wright says the only downside is this year’s prime season of nesting is that it catches Nebraska prairie grouse in a serious ebb, with recent years of persistent drought being the scuttling culprit. Even with the expected good recruitment this year — birds added to the population — Nebraska’s grouse started the nesting season low in numbers.

Bryan O’Connor, Upland Game Program Manager with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, says winter moisture finally and thankfully turned the tide, assisting early spring grassland growing conditions. Then came much-needed late spring and summer rains. The result, he says, has been optimal brood cover with a flush of annual forbs, especially wild sunflowers.

Ben Wheeler, Coordinating Wildlife Biologist for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, says flowering plants are easier on the eyes than a parched landscape, but they’re much more than just wallflowers. “During a drought, grass plants respond by shrinking back a bit. This opens up small patches of real estate for opportunistic broadleaf forbs and wildflowers. The open ground and stems of forbs provide an excellent nursery and playground for chicks, with abundant insect food and open runways for travel. Expect to see many more wildflowers as you walk the prairies in the early fall.”

Prairie grouse inhabit expansive grasslands and aren’t as reliably near roads as ring-necked pheasants and northern bobwhites, so the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission does not conduct a formal roadside preseason population estimate. But O’Connor is buoyed by late summer reports coming in from fellow biologists and private landowners across the grouse range. “We are seeing good-sized broods and a fair amount of brood observations,” he says.

Wheeler, from his post in Ord in central Nebraska, says sightings from his fieldwork in grasslands and pastures match that assessment. “The broods I have seen look healthy; anywhere from six to eight birds per brood, and they were already making short flights.”

Wright says this fall will surely be better than last but still below average to average. A bird hunter himself, he is at the very least optimistic his operative metric for success will switch from miles-walked-per-bird to birds-per-miles walked. And in Nebraska, a hunter has plenty of publicly accessible acres on which to work on the ratio. In fact, over 500,000 acres of publicly accessible lands across Nebraska’s core prairie grouse range.

Five federal and state tracts — the Nebraska National Forest at Halsey, the McKelvie National Forest, the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, and the Merritt Reservoir Wildlife Management Area — total more than 500,000 acres of Sandhills country.

And that’s not all. Other wildlife management areas and private lands enrolled in Nebraska’s Open Fields and Waters walk-in hunting access program are scattered throughout the Sandhills and can also provide good, public prairie grouse hunting opportunities. The Open Fields and Waters program has grown substantially in recent years, with more than 137,000 acres added just since 2016. In total, the program checks in at more than 372,000 accessible acres statewide.

To the uninitiated, the Sandhills can be intimidating. Wright says that generally speaking, sharptails dominate the region’s western portion, with prairie chickens more likely in the region’s gentler, low-rolling hills further east. He says using aerial imagery, such as that from onX Hunt, to digitally scout the Sandhills’ hills can be a huge help for hunters to find a starting point.

“Some hills — and you can see this — are big, gentle features. And other areas are just rough as can be. Those rougher areas are where to look for sharptails; that’s the premier sharp-tailed grouse habitat,” Wright says.

Even once boots are on the ground, Wright advises Sandhills hunters in the early going to work like big game hunters in developing a “search image,” or keeping a very specific visual image in mind when scanning the landscape. To build this search image skill as it pertains to grouse habitat, Wright says, “Don’t take a 10-mile walk and see how it is, take 10 1-mile walks and see how it is.” This method, he says, is much more effective in breaking down the big country and keying in on the microhabitats that may be holding grouse, whether they are pollinator patches with insects, shade plants and shrubs, or ridgetops.

Prairie chickens can also be found in decent numbers in southwest Nebraska, with the larger Open Fields and Waters tracts in Chase, Keith, Lincoln, and Hayes counties the standouts as worthwhile starting points.



» Prairie Grouse: Sept. 1, 2023 – Jan. 31, 2024


» Nonresident Annual Hunt Permit - $109 or Two-Day Hunt Permit - $76

» Nonresident Youth (under age 16) Annual Hunt Permit - $18

» Resident Annual Hunt Permit - $18

» The above prices do not include the Nebraska Habitat Stamp, which is required - $25

» A free East Zone permit is required to hunt prairie grouse east of U.S. Highway 81

Guides & Maps

Anthony Hauck can’t wait for 2023’s prairie grouse campaign to start, so he can run some ya-ya’s out of Rufio (aka Ruth), his high-octane little golden cocker. Sprig, the seasoned veteran, will just go to work at pace, much to the chagrin of many a northern plains sharptail and chicken.

Prairie Grouse Primer 2023: North Dakota


By Anthony Hauck

“It’s looking really, really good,” bird hunter Tyler Webster says of the condition of North Dakota’s grassland habitat, “We had really good rain all spring and into the summer. Everything is still green and there are lots of bugs.”

Webster, President of the Souris Valley Chapter of Pheasants Forever and a resident of Stanley in northwest North Dakota, says there are sharptails everywhere there are supposed to be sharptails. He had concerns about his home state’s upland birds following the recent harsh winter, which started early, featured a brutal December, and dropped record snowfalls in places like Dickinson. But these hardy native grouse made it through just fine.

Jesse Kolar, Upland Game Management Supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, was in the same camp. “We all expected doom and gloom for our spring and summer surveys, but somehow, our upland numbers have been surprisingly good,” Kolar says.

Emily Spolyar, North Dakota State Coordinator for Pheasants Forever, agreed. “Grouse are pretty hardy and built to withstand tough winters, but the birds fared much better than I expected them to,” she said.

One of the warmest Januarys on record offered upland wildlife a much-needed winter reprieve. But more than anything, Kolar says there were simply more grouse on the landscape than the 2022 numbers had indicated. “Grass conditions last year were phenomenal after April blizzards, and we likely missed a higher proportion of broods on brood surveys than usual due to exceptional late-nesting cover and a late hatch.”

In 2022, 20,461 grouse hunters (up 29%) harvested 62,640 sharp-tailed grouse (up 37%), compared to 15,762 hunters and 45,732 sharptails in 2021. Kolar says this overall harvest was a result of more hunters and good grouse production.

Kolar says 2023 is shaping up to be another good year for grouse, on par with or better than 2022 across the majority of the state. “Brood counts are looking good so far. We’ve been seeing older broods (large chicks), and larger broods than last year, on top of seeing more grouse per mile,” he says. (The North Dakota Game and Fish Department continues these surveys through the end of August, so official reports from the late summer roadside counts will be available the first week in September.)

Spolyar, who lives near Regent in the southwest corner of the state, says that based on the grouse broods she has encountered, it appears that early nesting attempts were quite successful. “This is encouraging because we know that those first or early nesting attempts have the most eggs,” she says.

Webster, who has more than 30 years of experience gauging game populations in his area, says the broods he’s come across, either on roadsides or in the field doing late summer bird dog training, pass his bar. “My barometer for a good hatch is if it’s averaging better than eight in a brood, and this year it’s closer to 10,” he says.

North Dakota is a sharptail hunter’s mainstay for two reasons: It is part of the bird’s core range, and there is ample access for the publicly inclined hunter. According to the conservation organization Partners in Flight, North Dakota has as much as one-third of the entire North American population of sharp-tailed grouse. The state will have more than 800,000 acres in its Private Land Open To Sportsmen (PLOTS) program for public walk-in hunting access, roughly the same number as the last few years.

Hunting sharptails is a home game for Webster. Still, he is a traveling wingshooter who knows exactly where he’d orient himself were he a nonresident coming to North Dakota, and that would be by focusing on the counties with the highest percentage of sharptails taken last year: Mountrail, Burke, Bowman, Divide, and McKenzie.

Kolar says that though grouse broods do well in canola fields and birds are drawn to sunflower fields, they are otherwise not as common in agriculturally dominated landscapes. “Hunters should look for areas with at least 25- to-50 percent pastures and native grasslands, since most sharptail nest in shortgrass or mixed grasslands,” he says.

“Areas around our state trust lands are an excellent place to start since they are primarily leased for livestock grazing,” he adds. Specifically called North Dakota Department of School Trust Lands, these tracts are often referred to as “blue squares” for how they are color-coded on the PLOTS maps.

North Dakota’s sharptail season dates are the same for Gray Partridge, also known as Hungarian Partridge and commonly called Huns. Usually considered a bonus bird for grouse and pheasant hunters, Kolar says habitat and weather conditions have also been kind to these covey birds. In fact, Huns this year are doing as good as or better than grouse in some areas, which hasn’t happened in three decades.



» Sharp-tailed Grouse: Sept. 9, 2023 – Jan. 7, 2024


» Nonresident Small Game License (must choose between a 14-consecutive-day or two 7-consecutive-day license periods and may purchase more than one license per year) - $100

» Nonresident Small Game License under age 16 (same period choice as above) - $10

» Resident Small Game License - $10

» The above prices do not include the General Game and Habitat License, which is required - $20

Daily Bag & Possession Limits

» 3 / 12

Guides & Maps

Anthony Hauck can’t wait for 2023’s prairie grouse campaign to start, so he can run some ya-ya’s out of Rufio (aka Ruth), his high-octane little golden cocker. Sprig, the seasoned veteran, will just go to work at pace, much to the chagrin of many a northern plains sharptail and chicken.

Prairie Grouse Primer 2023: Montana


By Jack Hutson

To help hunters navigate Montana’s vast prairie grouse country, Pheasants Forever breaks the state down into its three major grouse producing regions. The experts have all weighed in, and here is this season’s outlook for your favorite piece of the Big Sky prairie grouse pie.


Let’s start with southeastern Montana and its vast sweeps of prairie grouse habitat.

Winter Conditions

How was the southern Montana winter for sharptails and sage grouse? Sharp-tailed grouse and sage grouse in the region saw varying levels of winter precipitation but, across the board, it was a long one.”

So said Justin Hughes, Region 7’s Upland Game Bird Habitat Specialist (UGBHS) for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP). His winter description continued, “The eastern third of the region experienced large amounts of drifted snow. The good news was that windy conditions cleared snow from large flats and crested buttes for grouse to forage.”

Also based in Miles City as part of the Sage Grouse Initiative, NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) biologist Martin Ellenburg, added this report: “Drifted snow and slick road conditions limited lek surveys this spring but, due to consecutive drought years and poor habitat conditions, it is most likely sage grouse went into the nesting season with below average numbers.”

Both experts agreed that regional prairie grouse fared well considering the winter weather, but - How did spring and the all-important nesting conditions seem to stack up?

Spring Nesting

“Spring was pretty kind to our upland birds,” reported Hughes. “Winter hung on, which likely pushed back some of the bird’s nesting attempts. The habitat is looking quite good after receiving decent amounts of timely rain showers. The amount of nesting cover and good brood rearing habitat should aid hens in their attempts to hatch and raise their broods.”

Ellenburg agreed: “I have noticed that the sharptails seemed to have responded well in and around the CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) properties I was inspecting earlier this summer. This spring’s improved conditions may have given sage grouse a much-needed boost in the way of better recruitment numbers, as well.”

Fall Outlook

What can hunters expect this fall? Hughes weighed in: “Overall, I think that things are looking good for prairie grouse going into the fall. The amount cover and forage available on the landscape is the best we have seen in the last handful of years.”

All regional experts mentioned the same “wild card” – grasshoppers! The Montana hopper plague continues across all the regions interviewed.

“Hoppers are a double-edged sword,” says Ellenburg. “They provide much needed protein for poults, but the massive numbers may decimate rangeland habitat.” Hughes agreed. “Although the effects that large swarms of grasshoppers have on farmers and ranchers can be devastating, grasshopper events like we have witnessed the last 3 years have made it pretty easy for broods, and adult grouse alike, to get their bellies full.”


The neighbor to the north of Region 7 had seen slightly improving sharp-tailed grouse numbers in its eastern portions in recent years. What about this year?

Winter Conditions

“Winter in northeastern Montana was more severe than normal, with more snowfall and lower than average temperatures from early November through late April,” said Ken Plourde, Upland Bird Specialist with Montana FW&P. “On the heels of two years of drought, these conditions were not particularly helpful for bird survival. While these species are adapted to challenging winter conditions, there was likely slightly greater winter mortality than usual in our region for all species of gamebirds.”

Like much of the Columbian sharptail range, lingering winter snow may have affected the spring dance and nesting periods. What did it look like going into the nesting season? Plourde offered this report: “Nesting season was slightly delayed due to the lingering winter conditions in April. The one upside of a long snowy winter was improved moisture conditions, which was also followed by a wetter May and June than the region has seen in several years.”

Spring Nesting

“Once things got going, lek surveys for sharp-tailed grouse showed the average males per lek dropped slightly from the previous year,” said Plourde. “Lek counts were better in the eastern portions than western portions of our region, which has been the case since 2017.”

According to earlier surveys, sage grouse suffered greater impacts from winter conditions. The average number of males per lek fell 26% from the previous year; 36% below their long-term average for the region.

About going into the nesting cycle and beyond, Plourde shared these observations: “The only concerning effects of weather on nesting and hatching were several cool and wet nights during the critical early brood period of late June and early July. This almost certainly impacted survival of some younger chicks.

Fall Outlook

Plourde shared his fall outlook: “Conditions since early July have been conducive to brood rearing. Brood observations are just beginning and are only anecdotal so far, but sharptail broods seem slightly smaller than usual.”

Good conditions and another year of grasshopper infestation to grow young grouse may be the combination hunters need for a fair chance at putting grouse in their vest this fall.

According to the Montana FWP’s latest census (2021), Region 6 enjoyed the highest overall percentage of hunter success for sharptails (82%) and sage grouse (57%) of the three regions interviewed.


Region 4 has arguably suffered the worst of Montana’s seasonal weather conditions, and is due for an improvement. Regional experts may offer some hope.

Winter Conditions

When asked about winter conditions building up to the spring nesting season, Matt Strauch, the Region 4 UGBHS for Montana’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks turned in this report: “Past years of drought and the harsh winter have taken a toll on upland bird populations in the region. The 2023 regional habitat conditions are looking up compared to that of 2021 & 2022 and, according to the National Weather Service, last winter gave us slightly above average precipitation and slightly below average temperatures.”

Located in the southeastern corner of the region, Pheasant Forever Coordinating Biologist Josh Hobbs added this report: “Snow in some areas covered much of the sage causing (sage) grouse counts to drop several percentage points in most areas of Petroleum and Fergus counties. Sharptails took a hit in this area, as well.”

Spring Nesting

Hobbs continued, “Untimely rain and hail events may have hurt some early broods and nests but this spring, overall, should have helped with recruitment.”

Strauch offered this observation: “Although grouse numbers are down from the historical average, according to spring lek counts for sharp-tailed grouse and sage grouse, spring and early summer weather conditions have offered some (drought) relief, with above average precipitation and temperatures in May-June.”

Fall Outlook

“The habitat is there and the nesting conditions were ideal, so the outlook on nest success looks promising for the birds that survived past years of drought and difficult winters,” said Strauch.

“With spring rains comes increased vegetation and fire danger,” warned Hobbs. “There are plenty of dry fuels so be aware and tend to fires appropriately - especially in the field. Use caution with vehicles in tall grass or, better yet, park on the gravel and walk!”

He added this suggestion for improved relations: “Respect public and private lands; thank private landowners for enrolling in Block Management.”

2021 hunter success for Region 4 sharptail hovered around 70% - sage grouse, averaged about 37%.


For sharptails, Ken Plourde of Region 6 advises using technology and boots to locate the habitat that grouse are keying on. He pointed out, “Based on weather and what foods are most prime, they can shift the areas they are using rapidly.”

“The hunting conditions could be pretty tough, as there is a lot of cover on the landscape and food everywhere which sometimes makes patterning birds difficult,” began Justin Hughes of Region 7. “Hunters should look for patterns in habitat; where they are and are not finding birds.”

“My best advice to folks struggling to find birds is to get in the truck and seek areas of varying habitat,” added Hughes. “Hunt through them until you find the kind of habitat they’re using considering prevailing (weather) conditions.”

Also based in Region 7, Martin Ellenburg advises: “Hunters should check National Weather Service data for where positive (or negative) regional weather events had occurred. It will likely be a good place to start planning your hunt.”

Sage grouse inhabit generally drier areas within the region and water sources will be a priority. Plourde suggests looking for patches of green. “Birds will typically be within a half mile of those areas, foraging down in those spots with green vegetation and loafing in better sagebrush stands nearby,” he said.

All the experts agreed that, though perhaps over-stated, truer words hath not been said: “Prairie grouse are — most certainly — boot leather birds.”


Sharp-tailed grouse season runs September 1 thru January 1, 2024 with a bag limit of 4 / day and 4 times the daily bag in possession.

Sage grouse season runs September 1 to 30 and the bag limit is 2 per day. Possession limit is two times the daily bag limit.

There is no open season for either species west of the Continental Divide. For firearm restrictions, legal hunting hours and other details, see Montana’s regulations here.

Note: In some areas, Grey (Hungarian) Partridge will share the prairie with grouse and the season coincides with sharp-tails: September 1 thru January 1, 2024 with a daily limit of 8.

Base Hunting License: $10 for residents, $15 for non-residents. Conservation Fee: $4 for residents ages 12-17 and over 62 / $8 Ages 18-61 years. For nonresidents the cost is $10.

Season Upland Game Bird License: Residents pay $7.50 Ages 18 – 61 / $3.75 Ages 12-17*, Senior (62+) or Disabled. For nonresidents the cost runs $55 ages 12-17* / $110 1ges 18 and over. * Ages 10 & 11 may be eligible, see regs for complete information

3-day Upland Game Bird License: $50 for nonresidents. The license is not valid for sage grouse at any time or for ring-necked pheasants during the opening week of season.

Jack Hutson is a reformed (retired) college professor turned gun dog trainer/consultant and vagabond upland bird hunter.

Prairie Grouse Primer 2023: South Dakota


By Andrew Johnson

According to harvest survey data collected by the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department (SDGFP), hunters bagged more than 63,600 prairie grouse in 2022. That total was roughly 10,000 more birds than 2021, when hunters killed an estimated 53,000 birds.

But the good news doesn’t stop there. After enduring one of the worst winters in recent memory, wildlife officials from across South Dakota believe prairie grouse hunters will be pleasantly surprised by what they find in the Rushmore State this fall.

“The 2023 prairie grouse season is expected to be better than 2022,” says Nick Harrington, SDGFP communications manager. “The majority of central and western South Dakota has recovered from drought, and grassland habitat conditions look wonderful. Although the lingering cooler spring temperatures and snowpack from the winter may have delayed nesting efforts in some areas, we expect the current grassland conditions to contribute to quality hunting cover and good prairie grouse production, resulting in increased hunter success.”


South Dakota experienced a challenging winter. Wind, above-average snowfall and frigid temperatures battered the state for five solid months, leading to widespread fears that prairie grouse numbers took a massive hit.

And while it’s true that winter took some toll on prairie grouse, annual lek surveys conducted this spring in portions of central South Dakota that overlap popular hunting areas showed population levels were similar to last year’s counts.

In fact, lek surveys of prairie grouse on the Fort Pierre National Grassland actually showed a 5 percent increase over last year’s count. The increase was primarily due to higher numbers of prairie chickens counted on the leks, but the results were encouraging nonetheless, according to Alex Solem, senior upland game bird biologist for SDGFP.

In a recent SDGFP podcast, Solem said spring lek counts are a good way to gauge prairie grouse numbers heading into the breeding season. He said while spring lek counts aren’t indicative of what grouse numbers will be come fall, they are a good measuring stick to gauge overwinter survival and a good indicator of long-term population trends.

“If spring lek counts are unchanged from last year, I would assume that overwinter survival was pretty normal, and that’s actually encouraging, considering the type of winter we had,” Solem said.


Additional moisture from all the snowfall was soaked up by a thirsty landscape that had seen nothing but drought for two years. Timely rains added their measure and gave a much-needed boost to residual cover that’s crucial for upland game bird nesting.

“Spring nesting conditions were pretty good around here,” says PF Farm Bill Biologist Trent Walrod, who works with landowners in Gregory, Lyman and Tripp counties in the south-central part of the state. “The Fort Pierre National Grassland started out the spring growing good grass and was pretty dry for most of the spring. We had a somewhat wet spring last year, so nesting seemed to be a bit more ahead of schedule this year.”

Observed nesting conditions were also in good shape in the far western portions of the state, says Derek Hartl, a PF range and wildlife conservationist for Butte and Harding counties.

“We have had some consistent rains and cooler temperatures throughout the spring and summer,” reports Hartl. “Where I’m at, May and June were very wet months this year, and that may have pushed back the nesting timing a little. But, overall, it won't have any effect on the number of birds that are out on that landscape this year.”

The good news continued into brood-rearing season, as timely rains — exceeding the June average by an inch or more across parts of the state’s primary grouse range — mitigated the effects of high temperatures during the peak hatching period. The moisture meant plenty of bug production, and it also bolstered the habitat, creating a protective canopy for the chicks.

“Grouse production is highly correlated with the average temperature in June,” Solem said. “When you have a warm June, it usually means you have a drought, and that impacts insect production for chick survival and nesting conditions for actually having residual grass. We did have a warmer-than-average June, but at the same time, we got moisture.”


All things considered, there is simply more grass on the landscape this year in South Dakota. And for the first time in years, a majority of the state’s primary grouse range is no longer suffering from drought. In fact, if you look at the current U.S. Drought Monitor map, almost the entire western half of the state is in the clear.

In the south-central part of the state, Walrod says the habitat currently looks great heading into the fall.

“We have been getting some very timely rains these last few weeks and the habitat really responded to those well,” Walrod says. “With the extra moisture this year, our habitat is looking better, so I think the grouse will be more spread out. So, don’t get discouraged if you walk for a while and don’t see anything. That’s the name of the game when it comes to hunting grouse.”

Hartl echoes those comments, saying that the primary grouse habitat is in really good shape in the western and northwestern parts of the state.

“We are still getting timely rain, and everything is still (mid-August) green here,” Hartl reports. “There is plenty of cover this year, and I expect to have some good grouse numbers for this fall's hunting season.”


The Fort Pierre National Grassland is probably the state’s most well-known grouse hunting destination. Located in the central part of the state, its 116,000 acres of scattered federal tracts are mixed in with private cropland and rangeland, as well as other public areas such as Walk-in Areas and School and Public Lands. The mixed-bag potential it holds for sharptails, prairie chickens and pheasants makes it a popular destination.

That said, grouse hunters looking to escape the crowds and follow their dog around on huge blocks of public land would be wise to look at the state’s other two national grassland areas: Grand River (155,000 acres) and Buffalo Gap (600,000 acres). Because of their size, these checkerboard areas offer a wide variety of habitat — from rolling hills of mixed-grass prairie to big coulees and breaks mottled with kochia to Badland-esque panoramas — where you could walk all day in the same direction and never run out of room.

If You Go

Because much of the state was in drought at some point during the year, some areas were still opened up by the Farm Service Agency for emergency haying and grazing. That means scouting and calling ahead to SDGFP wildlife offices and grassland ranger districts are critical steps hunters should take once again this year.

Also, take advantage of the free GoOutdoorsSD app on your smartphone. The GPS-enabled app will help you determine what is public land and what is not. More importantly, it can help you determine if you’re on the right side of the fence or help guide you back to your truck if you’re miles from the road when the sun sets.

Grouse hunters are asked to provide a wing from each bird they harvest. These wings will be used to estimate reproductive success and refine future prairie grouse outlooks. Go to to learn more and find where wing-box collection points are located.

South Dakota’s prairie grouse season opens September 16 and closes January 7, 2024. Shooting hours are from sunrise to sunset. The daily limit is 3 birds, with a possession limit of 15.

Hunters looking to double up on grouse and roosters should note South Dakota’s pheasant season runs Oct. 21 to Jan. 31, overlapping grouse season from mid-October to the first weekend in January.

South Dakotan Andrew Johnson reports and writes for Pheasants Forever on a wide variety of content topics, especially as they relate to his home state.

Prairie Grouse Primer 2023: Wyoming


By Josh Tatman

Last winter brought copious snow to most of Wyoming, and late spring brought double to triple the usual precipitation. Here's what that means for Wyoming's sharp-tailed and sage grouse, and this fall’s hunting.


The past few years have showcased the extremes of Wyoming weather.

Much of the state saw record-breaking drought in 2020 and 2021, and 2022 brought continued drought for some parts of the state. 2023 is on track to be one of the wettest on record. Dramatic weather swings have a definite effect on the success of Wyoming's sharp-tailed grouse. Sharptails are well adapted to harsh winter weather, but the annual crop of young birds can be impacted by wet weather in the spring.

Tim Thomas is the north-central region’s wildlife coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD). He said that information is limited for sharp-tailed grouse. “Managers conduct very limited grouse lek surveys annually, so we don’t have good data to estimate populations or even trends.”

He expects lower numbers of sharp-tailed grouse from Sheridan to Gillette to continue on the heels of several down years. “The cool, wet weather in May may have affected nest success and production.”

Keaton Weber, the state’s senior wildlife biologist in the Wheatland area, expects an uptick in southeast Wyoming’s sharptails.

“Exceptional cool-season grass growth during May and June provided ample cover and bug production for brood rearing,” he says. “However, some of these rain events brought cool temperatures and hail with them, so we likely experienced some losses when chicks were young and vulnerable.”

Regardless, 2023 will likely bring improving bird numbers to an area still stricken with drought last summer.

Joe Sandrini is WGFD’s senior wildlife biologist in the Newcastle area. He thinks northeast Wyoming looks good for sharptail hunting this year. “Anecdotally, sharptails seemed to have fared pretty well this year and last, with good brood production and survival. Limited lek counts show that numbers have been stable to increasing the past couple of years. Conditions for hatching and early brood rearing were good this year. Observations of other upland game birds, notably wild turkeys have shown this pattern as well.”

Wyoming’s sharp-tailed grouse have patchy distribution. The best habitat overlaps areas with the least public land, so serious grouse hunters should be prepared to knock on a few doors. In southeastern Wyoming, hunters can focus on grasslands and adjacent agricultural field margins. In northern Wyoming, try gently rolling native prairie, especially where berry bushes line the draws. Tim Thomas reminds hunters, “Water might be limited, and days might be hot in September, so carry water for your dog. And watch out for rattlesnakes.”

Season Details

Plains sharp-tailed grouse are open to hunting anywhere east of the continental divide, while isolated Columbian grouse populations in south-central Wyoming are closed to hunting.

Wyoming residents can purchase a daily bird hunting license for $9.00, or an annual permit for $16.00. Nonresidents pay $22.00 for a daily permit or $74.00 for an annual license. Most annual licenses also require a $21.50 conservation stamp. Proof of hunter's safety education is required for most hunters.


» Hunt area 1 (eastern and north-central. See regulations booklet): Sept. 1–Dec. 31

» Daily Bag: 3

» Possession: 9


Nyssa Whitford, lead sage grouse and sagebrush biologist for WGFD, predicts okay sage grouse hunting in the state this season.

"Preliminary data from lek observations this spring seem encouraging,” Whitford says. “We expect population trends to be slightly up to stable, compared to last year, in terms of number of birds and hunter success. It obviously isn't as great as when you look back to some of our high points in population."

Last winter’s impressive snowstorms hammered big game numbers in central and western Wyoming, but Whitford explains that sage grouse were probably less affected. "Sage grouse generally have high over-winter survival,” she says. “This past spring, we did notice delayed lek attendance and breeding in many areas of the state. We had a moderate, wet spring and early summer conditions, which created an abundance of forbs and insects on the landscape. There was abundant food for chicks and adults."

With encouraging but not plentiful bird numbers, Whitford thinks hunters that put in some effort are likely to bag a few sage grouse. This year, WGFD closed Hunt Area 4 in the northeastern part of the state. "In this region, the habitat is not as continuous or robust, and the population numbers are lower," says Whitford. This means hunters will need to target sage grouse in central and southwestern Wyoming. Most sage grouse hunters focus their efforts on a corridor of prime habitat from Casper to Pinedale.

Hunters should try walking benches and gentle rises adjacent to perennial water sources, especially on higher plateaus. It’s best to focus on shorter stands of sagebrush, rather than tall and thick patches.

Season Details

Like sharp-tailed grouse, sage grouse can be pursued with an over-the-counter upland bird hunting license. See details above. Dog training on sage grouse out of season is prohibited in Wyoming.


» Hunt area 1 (central and southwest. See regulations booklet): Sept. 16–30

» Hunt areas 2, 3, 4: closed

» Daily Bag: 2

» Possession: 4

Josh Tatman adventures and writes from home in northern Wyoming.