North Dakota's upland game opener passed last weekend without much fanfare. Evidence showed the number of hunters carrying on the tradition of heading to the fields for the grouse and partridge opener has noticeably shrunk in recent years. This year, I would suspect because of increased energy activity and reports of fewer birds, it sure seemed fewer hunters were in the field.
I've heard of areas where hunters crossed paths with other hunters, but I didn't experience anything like that in the area I've hunted opening day for as many years as I can remember. In fact, I never saw another hunter. I didn't see many birds either. Reports I've heard are that some hunters bagged some birds but most agreed it was much less than expected.
I know it is not a perfect survey but, from what I observed, grouse hunters are going to have a much tougher time this season than they have had in recent years. My chosen area near the White Earth Valley is busy with oil activity. However, some of that has actually backed off a bit from what it was where I prefer to hunt. Still, the birds were not there.
Kim Fundingsland is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News.
I like to check that area every year because, for me, it is a darned reliable indicator of grouse populations over a much wider area. My experience has shown that if grouse are doing well there, they are doing pretty well elsewhere too. No biologist would completely approve my survey. I know that, but I also know this is not the year to put any hunting pressure on that area. There's not enough birds. Why? I'm not sure.
Winters have been tough. I didn't see many bugs, good food for grouse. Energy activity plays a role too. There's more roads and more activity and more familiarity in areas that used to be frequented and known primarily only by local hunters. In short, it is not the same as it used to be.
Will it recover? Can it recover? I hope so, but I'm not counting on it. Perhaps when I go there next year for the opener the birds will have rebounded. It's possible and it gives me some hope that an annual tradition, no matter how small the scale, can continue.
Prairie grouse have shown an ability to rebound quickly. They've also shown a dislike for getting crowded. Nevertheless, biologists say sharptails are found in every county in the state. That's a good thing. I hope it never changes.