The grouse and partridge hunting season has been open for less than a week, but some early indicators appear to show that hunters can expect better hunting than last season.
The seasons for ruffed grouse, sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens began Sept. 19 and will continue through Jan. 3, 2016.
"We really can't put an exact number to it, but what we do know it is likely there will be an increase in the population compared to last year," said Travis Runia, senior game biologist for the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish & Parks.
The GF&P doesn't have a bird survey for grouse like it does for pheasants, so officials must rely on forecasts that are based on other factors. Those include whether or not the weather enabled a healthy breeding season for grouse, and how many grouse feathers were turned in the previous season, Runia said.
"When we have really hot June weather, it tends to reduce reproduction. Warm weather in June can lead to a drought, which is bad for grouse," Runia said.
During this relatively wet summer, drought wasn't much of an issue, so that's a major reason the grouse population is expected to be higher, he said.
"Hunting is typically better when there's a good year for reproduction, not only because there are more birds, but younger birds tend to be easier to hunt," Runia said.
The reason the GF&P doesn't have a physical grouse survey or count is because the small birds are cagey and much harder to see in the wild than pheasants. Often, hunters of their dogs will nearly step on grouse before they fly and provide an opportunity for a shot.
"They don't hang out on the road like pheasants would; they're usually in the prairie and there's no good way to see them," Runia said.
Grouse live and breed in large tracts of contiguous sections of grassland. Some popular destinations to hunt grouse are The Grand River National Grassland, the Buffalo Gap National Grassland and the Fort Pierre National Grassland.
"If there's a landscape where there's grass as far as the eye can see, it's a pretty good indicator you're in prime grouse territory," Runia said.
Runia said grouse hunting requires a lot more walking than a typical pheasant hunt. Whether that's a positive or a negative aspect of grouse hunting depends on individual preference.
"It's not unusual for someone hunting grouse to walk five miles or more in a morning," he said. "Some people really enjoy that."
Runia said it's a good bird to hunt with pointing dogs because they can smell the bird at a distance. The dog can work a long ways away from the hunter, track the bird and help the hunter find it.
Grouse hunters are asked to voluntarily submit a wing from each grouse harvested at wing collection boxes that are placed at locations along roadsides, parking areas and local businesses to help with next season's estimate. Hunters are reminded to only submit wings of birds near the area they were harvested.