A sooty, coal-black dust kicked up from wildlife biologist Mike Feiger’s logging boots with each step he took along a mountain ridge near Pilot Peak Lookout, about 20 miles northeast of Idaho City.
Feiger, with the U.S. Forest Service’s Idaho City Ranger District, was surveying forest grouse habitat in August, a week after the Pioneer Fire swept through the area leaving a mosaic of charred black and gray with spots of untouched green vegetation.
While the hunting outlook for most upland-game birds looks good throughout Southwest Idaho, forest grouse hunting remains a big mystery after the monster wildfire this summer that is sweeping through ponderosa pine forests in the Boise and Salmon River mountains, between Idaho City and Lowman, and beyond toward Deadwood Reservoir and Bear Valley. The region contains some of the most popular forest-grouse hunting areas for Treasure Valley hunters.
The Pioneer Fire has burned more than 186,000 acres in about 280 square miles in the Boise National Forest. That’s a lot of grouse-hunting area.
Feiger walked along the burned area, stopped for a second and then picked up a feather from a grouse.
“They’re still around,” he said with a smile.
In addition to being a wildlife biologist, Feiger also is an avid grouse hunter. Another hint of hope came for Feiger when he met other Forest Service employees in the area assessing fire danger. They were kicking up grouse as they traversed the burned areas.
“The birds are pretty good at moving out of the way of fire,” Feiger said. The way the Pioneer Fire progressed, he believes most of the birds got out of the way and sought refuge in stream drainages, hollows and ridges that were untouched by the fire. “They had plenty of opportunities to skirt out,” he said.
Grouse will seek food and shelter in the nearby green areas and Feiger is hopeful the grouse population will be fine. Areas that burned will start seeing new growth of brush and other plants that will again provide habitat for grouse. Feiger foresees stands of aspen coming back and expanding in a lot of the burned areas. Aspens provide food and cover for wildlife.
However, as the Pioneer Fire continues to burn, grouse hunters will want to avoid most of the burned areas around Pilot Peak, Mores Creek and Beaver Creek summits, Crooked River and a checkerboard of areas beyond to Lowman, mainly because of fire closures and unsafe terrain with snags and other fire debris.
Another biologist keeping tabs on upland-game birds is Michelle Commons Kemner, a southwest regional wildlife biologist for Idaho Fish and Game.
Kemner puts together an annual upland-bird hunting forecast for the region and sees a promising season.
The success of upland-bird populations depends on spring nesting weather.
“This spring was mild enough for nesting and there was just enough moisture to provide plants and insects for young birds,” Kemner said.
Another plus was good carryover populations of birds from 2015 because of a mild winter. Those are birds that are able to survive the winter and add to the general population.
“We also had some June and early July rains that extended the bug production for chick food,” she said. “Green forage lasted into early July so that an upland bird hen had the energy to attempt to re-nest if she lost a nest. As long as a hen has forbs to eat, she’ll keep up her body condition and can use some of that excess body fat to re-nest.
Kemner recently has seen a few large chukar broods that were only half grown so the hatch was in the last four weeks.
Idaho Fish and Game for Southwest Idaho’s outlook
▪ Forest grouse (open through Dec. 31): Forest grouse hunting should be good. Hunters will want to avoid the burned areas and hunting opportunities can still be found in the mountains near Cambridge, New Meadows, McCall, Cascade, Riggins, Featherville and Stanley. Forest grouse include dusky (blue), spruce and ruffed grouse.
Generally, dusky grouse can be found in higher elevations in the transition zone between sagebrush and mountain shrubs and open slopes in pine forests.
Spruce grouse can be found in areas dominated by Douglas fir and spruce forests in the Stanley area.
Ruffed grouse are found in brushy zones along streams at mid-elevation.
▪ Chukar (Sept. 17-Jan. 31): Chukar hunting should be good to excellent this year. Chukar populations have been on the rebound during the past five years and favorable spring and winter conditions meant the hatch was good.
Favorite hunting areas around Brownlee Reservoir, the Owyhee Front and the Owyhee Canyonlands all look good.
▪ Hungarian partridge (Sept. 17-Jan. 31): Hungarian partridge are the most unpredictable upland bird to hunt. However, good-sized broods have been observed across the Treasure Valley this summer.
Huns, or gray partridge, generally prefer dry sagebrush uplands adjacent to cultivated fields or near livestock watering areas in sagebrush rangelands.
▪ Quail (Sept. 17-Jan. 31): Quail hunting should be good to excellent this year. The hatch was good during summer 2015 and carryover quail should have come through the winter very well. Quail are most often found in brushy areas along the Snake, Boise and Payette rivers.
▪ Pheasants (Oct. 15-Dec. 31): Pheasant hunting should be fair to good this year. Populations were excellent in 2015 and pheasants should have overwintered well. Pheasants can be found in and adjacent to cultivated grain fields and also in upland areas adjacent to perennial streams.
▪ Sage-grouse (Sept. 17-Sept. 23): Sage-grouse hunting should be good to excellent this year. Fish and Game found some of the highest sage-grouse counts last spring in more than 10 years. An early spring provided important early-season forage for hens, which means good chick production. Popular sage-grouse hunting areas can be found in Owyhee County.
▪ Mourning doves (Sept. 1-Oct. 30): Dove season should be good to excellent this year. Doves can be found in trees and shrubs adjacent to cultivated fields and along brushy streams and rivers. They can also be found feeding in cut grain fields.
Doves can also be found on Montour, Payette River, CJ Strike and Fort Boise wildlife management areas.
Pete Zimowsky retired after 40 years as an outdoors writer at the Idaho Statesman. He writes occasional stories for Playing Outdoors.