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North Dakota grouse hurt by 2021 drought; upland game harvests drop

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sharp-tailed grouse

Devastating drought in 2021 hurt North Dakota's sharp-tailed grouse population.

Drought in 2021 has impacted grouse populations in North Dakota, according to newly released spring survey results from the state Game and Fish Department.

Statewide, 2,639 sharp-tailed grouse were observed on spring dancing grounds this year, a 13% drop from last year. Male grouse recorded per square mile -- four -- was slightly above the 10-year average of 3.8.

“These declines align with poor reproduction documented during the 2021 drought,” Upland Game Management Supervisor Jesse Kolar said. “We observed low sharptail reproduction rates during late-summer roadside counts and found a low juvenile-to-adult ratio from hunter-submitted wings.”

Fourteen male sage grouse were counted on one active lek this spring, down from seven males on six leks last year. Leks are mating grounds. North Dakota does not offer a hunting season on sage grouse due to the low population.

Survey results indicate a 52% increase in the number of ruffed grouse drums heard in the Turtle Mountains, but a 5% decrease in drums heard per stop in the Pembina Hills.

“When combined, survey results indicate a steady population of ruffed grouse drums heard in 2022 compared to 2021,” Kolar said.

The spring grouse census provides an indication of breeding populations. For sharptails, results can be combined with brood count data to predict fall populations. Game and Fish staff conduct late-summer roadside counts from late July through August to survey upland game broods and will release a summary in early September.

“Despite the decrease, the fall outlook will include the spring breeding adults plus successful broods,” Kolar said. “This spring had poor residual grass following the 2021 drought. Early nesting was further disrupted by significant snowstorms in the second and third weeks of April.

"However, the result is a grassland landscape with abundant, tall nesting vegetation for mid- to late-season nesting attempts. We'll see if that is enough to protect chicks from summer storms," he said.

Hunting success

Game and Fish also has released summaries of the 2021 upland game bird seasons. Pheasant, sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge harvests all were down from 2020. Upland Game Biologist RJ Gross cited fewer hunters and below-average reproduction.

“Although anecdotal reports from hunters indicated 2021 reproduction was better than we reported, the juvenile-to-adult ratio from our hunter-submitted wings confirmed that 2021 reproduction was below-average for pheasants and sharptail,” he said.

Last year, 47,020 pheasant hunters (down 18%) harvested 259,997 roosters (down 21%). Counties with the highest percentage of pheasants taken were Hettinger, Divide, Bowman, Williams and Stark.

A total of 15,762 grouse hunters (down 21%) harvested 45,732 sharp-tailed grouse (down 47%). Counties with the highest percentage of sharptails taken were Mountrail, Burleigh, Ward, Divide and Kidder.

Game and Fish said 14,013 hunters (down 17%) harvested 44,822 Hungarian partridge (down 14%). Counties with the highest percentage of Hungarian partridge taken were Mountrail, Ward, Stark, Williams and Divide.

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