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Sharp-tailed grouse, Hungarian partridge and ruffed grouse are down across the board this fall in N.D., surveys show

By Brad Dokken

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The good, old days that upland game hunters in North Dakota enjoyed in the mid-2000s are fading into history, if results from the state's July and August roadside grouse and partridge surveys are any indication.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department reported last week that sharptail numbers are down a whopping 51 percent from last year, with the number of broods down 50 percent. Hungarian partridge, meanwhile, are down 34 percent, while brood sightings during the roadside surveys declined by 31 percent.

That means hunters are going to have to spend a lot more time pounding the prairie when North Dakota's upland game season opens Saturday.

According to Stan Kohn, upland game management supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, the decline likely results from the ongoing loss of grassland habitat and a cold, wet spring that hampered production.

"Any time we get conversion of grasslands being taken out of grass and put into some other type of land use, it's going to affect our grouse numbers," Kohn said. "The other thing we're seeing — and I was hoping that wouldn't be the case — was that wet spring we had. I was hoping that our birds — we knew they were going to be nesting later because winter kind of dragged on — would miss that wet period we had in May and April, but when I see these numbers, it looks like it must have gotten into the nesting and hatching period and affected the number of birds that survived."

Kohn said he expects pheasant numbers will follow a similar trend when results from late-summer surveys become available this week.

"The numbers are going to be pretty similar to what we're looking at for sharptails," Kohn said. "It looks like for this year, we'll have to live with it."

Despite the decline in grouse and partridge numbers, Kohn said hunters who put in the effort still will find pockets of birds.

"The southwest doesn't look all that bad, but (sharptails) are certainly not going to be at the numbers we saw three or four years ago," he said. "A guy's going to have to be pretty versatile and move around a lot."

The upland game declines aren't unique to North Dakota, Kohn said; it's happening across the Great Plains. Just last week, for example, South Dakota reported a 64 percent decline in its pheasant population, and Iowa this past week reported its lowest pheasant count in 60 years.

As more grassland is converted, and land in the Conservation Reserve Program returns to crop production, Kohn said game numbers and hunter success will continue to decline.

"It's kind of moving us back into that 1990s period is what it looks like," Kohn said. "I'm afraid the heydays are probably over with for awhile here in North Dakota, and we're going to have to live with it."

Following the downtrend, ruffed grouse numbers in North Dakota's forested region in the northeast and north-central parts of the state also declined. Kohn said Game and Fish wasn't able to survey the Pembina Hills area this past spring, but drumming counts in the Turtle Mountains were down 40 percent to 50 percent.

"I would imagine if a guy just likes to walk in the trees, it's probably a nice time, but I don't think productivity-wise it's going to be all that good," Kohn said.

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