First the bison, now the sharptail grouse and prairie chickens.
Animal species that have disappeared from the Nebraska Sandhills are legion. I hoped that remnant populations of prairie grouse, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, prairie dogs, badgers, jackrabbits, western meadowlarks, and several dozen other species would hold out during my lifetime, but it was not to be.
Gophers, coyotes, and crows seem to be hanging on to a meager existence in the wild of the McKelvie National Forest (actually a 180,000-acre grassland with a scattering of trees around prairie potholes and waterways), and a flock of wild turkeys paraded each afternoon through our trailer campsite at the Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area, but the animals that made this part of the Great Plains great have disappeared, almost without a trace.
All signs of prairie grouse have vanished. When my bird dog Abbey flash-pointed about 20 minutes into the first day’s hunt, I checked the ground and found a set of grouse tracks and some droppings. I began to pay more attention as I walked the hills, checked likely looking dune-side habitats, and found no other grouse tracks, droppings, dusting area marks, feathers in loafing or roosting spots, or stems of wild roses stripped bare of the red berries known as rose hips. The berries themselves were abundant, even super-abundant for a year of average rainfall. Good grass growth, plenty of water, good food sources (except insects) – all bespeaking excellent habitat for grouse. But no grouse.
The disappearance of both sharptail grouse and prairie chickens was evident three or four years ago when I hunted this country after torrential rains had flooded hundreds of square miles of the Sandhills. Reason enough for poor nesting conditions in the spring. Prior to that Noah’s Ark year, six or seven summers of drought and torrid heat had burned the grasslands, probably reducing bird populations. But prairie grouse numbers have rebounded quickly through hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years of history, and I find it difficult to understand why a decade of weather extremes would have driven them to extinction. I suspect something else is at play. Avian disease? Diminished reproductive capacity? Some aspect of climate change? A subtle alteration of the mega-habitat?
It is not only the grouse that have disappeared. Unbelievably, I did not see a single coyote during three days of bird hunting in the McKelvie and the nearby Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. I did find a few sets of coyote tracks and droppings, and heard snatches of their evening song lamenting the looming end of the natural bounty of Sandhills. In 45 years of hunting the McKelvie, I have never failed to see a herd of pronghorns. During a three-day hunt this year, I did not see a single one. Or a mule deer, whitetail deer, porcupine, skunk, badger, jackrabbit, western meadowlark, or other once familiar species. There were many dickcissels. Abbey was so bored she occasionally pointed one.
Many of the former prairie potholes and marshes had become ponds or even lakes, evidence of the recharged Ogallala Aquifer rising above valley floors, so there were several species of waterfowl, although their numbers were not as high as I expected. Crows, northern harriers, redtail hawks, and turkey vultures were plentiful, but I wondered how they survived with so few animals to prey upon. There were few grasshoppers, which are a primary food source for fledgling grouse. Glaringly evident was the absence of the locusts we call “dinosaur hoppers,” which could make a good meal for some predator. Other insects also appeared scarce, a crumbling foundation under the pyramid of Sandhills wildlife.
A fellow camper told me there are lots of grouse on privately owned ranches across northcentral Nebraska. When had he last hunted grouse on private land, I asked? Fifteen or 20 years ago, he told me. Even if his supposition of high prairie grouse numbers on privately owned ranches was true, it seems odd that populations would not have spread to public lands where hunting pressure is light and habitat is good. Token populations of prairie grouse, like token populations of bison, might possibly exist on the groomed habitat of billionaire ranch owners, but that does not mean these gamebirds (or any other of the formerly common denizens the Sandhills) are any longer an indigenous species.
The final morning of a three-day hunt I killed a sharptail grouse. I first saw a trio of them scudding on a southeast wind, and I made my best guess where they might alight a mile downwind on one of the long, rippling rows of dunes. After a half hour walk, one sharptail flushed wild from a ridgetop, and I figured my last chance had passed. Violating all the rules of Sandhills grouse hunting, I trudged up the face of that dune with the wind in my face (you hunt these birds with the breeze at your back, surprising them as you top a ridge where they have been sheltering from Nebraska’s ever-blowing wind). A second grouse flushed ahead of Abbey. I shot and missed. A third flushed, and I knocked it down.
I felt some guilt over having killed one of the last three prairie grouse in the McKelvie, but only for a few moments. I am 72 years of age, I hunted more than 10 hours over the course of three days, and I walked more than 15 miles of remote country according to my odometer. Abbey and I were needled by cactus, yucca, and sandburs. We ran out of water and got leg cramps. In short, I felt that we had earned this bird. It may very well be the final prairie grouse I put in my worn-out hunting vest.
We sat on the ridgetop for several minutes and contemplated this fascinating gamebird, this fascinating country, this fascinating avocation of bird hunting. All of this is fading away, and I will miss it so much.