The beginning of many upland game seasons in southern Idaho is upon us. Winter severity and spring nesting conditions influence gamebird numbers, although winter generally affects pheasants and quail more than gray partridge and our native grouse species.
The 2021-22 winter was relatively mild while spring precipitation should have provided favorable nesting and brood rearing conditions. Unfortunately, continual loss of CRP that provides important gamebird habitat in much of southeastern Idaho may reduce the number of birds available to hunters.
Two species of “forest grouse,” ruffed and dusky (aka blue), occur in southeastern Idaho. Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) harvest data over the past five years suggests reasonably stable numbers for both species. This summer I have seen numerous dusky grouse broods in the mountains north of the Snake River Plain and suspect hunters should find plenty of birds in many areas.
Number of males counted on established lek routes was higher in 2022 than 2021 in most management areas. IDFG reported that statewide populations of sage-grouse rebounded somewhat in 2022 after population lows in 2019, 2020, and 2021. Sage-grouse hunters in 2022 will have to buy a tag to hunt in any of 12 sage-grouse hunting zones. Hunters can buy up to two tags and may buy a tag for more than one zone. Sage-grouse firearm season runs Sept. 17 through Oct. 31.
IDFG states that the sage-grouse tag system is designed to limit harvest to less than 10 percent of each zone’s estimated fall population. A total of 2,510 tags were offered for 2022. The number of tags was substantially increased for 2022 even though hunters shot far fewer sage-grouse than the agency expected in 2021. To estimate fall populations, IDFG must have good data on the number of breeding females, nest success, and brood survival. This information is difficult to acquire and, to my knowledge, the agency lacks those data so their “estimate” of the fall population is likely no more than a semi-educated guess.
Chukar and Gray Partridge
Chukars occur in only a few localized areas in southeastern Idaho and numbers are generally low. In contrast, gray partridge are widely distributed throughout the area. Like sharptails, this partridge is commonly found in CRP fields but I have also successfully hunted them in farmland and sagebrush habitats. Although populations fluctuate, numbers appear generally stable over the long term. I expect this year will be similar to last year.
Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse
IDFG Regional Wildlife Manager Zach Lockyer reported that sharptails were increasing based on lek counts the last three years. Last spring was the most encouraging he had observed in recent years. Mild winter, late spring moisture, and late summer thunderstorms likely created a decent year for brood survival. Unfortunately, continued loss of CRP due to the unpredictability of the farm bill has resulted in a significant loss of CSTG habitat. Overall, hunters this year will probably experience sharptail numbers similar to those of recent years.
My observations and those of some bird-hunting buddies suggest numbers are relatively low but comparable to last year. IDFG has expanded pheasant stocking throughout the state and will continue stocking pheasants at many wildlife management areas as well as several other areas in southern Idaho. Check the IDFG website for more information and look for additional thoughts on this questionable practice in a future column.
Generally, Zach suspects that hunters this fall will find birds in their usual haunts, but some places may be a bust. He noted that those hunters that are mobile and keep a positive attitude will still enjoy seeing their dogs run and perhaps a few points, flushes, and retrieves. I think Zach’s assessment is right on.
Jack Connelly has lived in Bingham County for over 40 years. He is an avid outdoorsman and has hiked, camped, hunted, and fished over much of the U.S. as well as parts of Europe and Asia. Connelly worked as a biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game for over 30 years. He now enjoys retirement with his wife Cheryl raising chickens and bird dogs at their home in Blackfoot.
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