A blue grouse hen perches on a pine bough.
Forest grouse hunting season starts later this year in order to conserve breeding hens and increase overall grouse abundance.

Start of forest grouse season delayed this year

Change aims to decrease hen harvest, boost hunting opportunity

Change is afoot for forest grouse season in Washington.

The traditional Sept. 1 start of the statewide forest grouse hunting season has been moved to Sept. 15 this year in order to reduce the harvest of breeding-age hens and ultimately increase forest grouse abundance and availability for hunters.

This season that traditionally ended on Dec. 31 will run from Sept. 15 through Jan. 15, 2022 this time around, so it is not being shortened and is actually seeing a day added. The only major change is that the four-month season’s start has been delayed.

This shift aims to reduce the disproportionate harvest of hens, which are responsible for population growth or decline, that is associated with forest grouse hunting in the first half of September.

The overall aim of this method — used in some other western states — is to help hunters by boosting forest grouse populations.

The bird’s backstory

Washington is one of the country’s premier forest grouse states, with a long hunting season and generous bag limit. There are four species of forest grouse in our state, and at least one species occupies almost every county in Washington.

Harvest statistics over the past 40 years show a decline in the number of harvested forest grouse. This is partly due to declining grouse populations and partly the result of decreased hunter interest.

One of the biggest impacts to grouse populations appears to be that early season hunting in the first half of September puts breeding-age females at higher risk for harvest. For example, breeding-age females in Okanogan County are roughly twice as likely to be harvested as breeding-age males. Continual harvest of these hens can reduce local populations over the long term, especially in areas easily accessed by hunters.

A male spruce grouse puts on a display while standing in the snow.
A male spruce grouse puts on a display from a frigid vantage point.

The science behind the change

The females of most wildlife populations are what drive population growth or decline. This is why we don’t harvest female pheasants in Eastern Washington and only have limited opportunity for harvest of female deer, elk, turkeys, etc. Even then, those opportunities are typically only in areas where these species are doing quite well.

So why not limit forest grouse hunting to males in the early season? It is tough for most hunters to identify forest grouse by sex. This makes a sex-specific harvest, like what is done with pheasants, unlikely to be successful in reducing breeding-age hen harvest.

That means the best way to reduce the harvest of breeding female forest grouse is delaying the start of the hunting season. This strategy has been used successfully in western states with sage and sharp-tailed grouse, and in eastern states with ruffed grouse.

The intent of this season change is to boost forest grouse abundance and availability to hunters over the long term.

Females with chicks are more often harvested because of their protective behavior. Forest grouse broods typically break up in mid-September, so starting the hunting season on Sept. 15 will help reduce the disproportionate harvest pressure on brood hens.

While excessive harvest of breeding females is not likely to make forest grouse disappear from certain locations, it is likely to reduce both their abundance and opportunities for hunters. The intent of this season change is to boost forest grouse abundance and availability to hunters over the long term.

A ruffed grouse surveys its surroundings.
A ruffed grouse surveys its surroundings.

Public comment

WDFW solicited two rounds of public input on this and all other 2021–23 hunting season proposals, one from Aug. 17, 2020 through Sept. 15, 2020 and the other Feb. 11 through March 4 of this year.

Also, a virtual public meeting was held Aug. 25, 2020 and comments were heard during the Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting on March 26.

In the first public input survey, 62 percent of respondents supported closures in early September, and shifting the opening day to Sept. 15 was the most-favored alternative.

To get updates about future season-change proposals and opportunities for public comment, you can sign up for WDFW mailing lists.

Other early season opportunities

Hunters looking for small game opportunities over Labor Day weekend can pursue cottontail rabbit, snowshoe hare, bobcat, fox, raccoon, and mourning dove statewide, as well as turkey in parts of Eastern Washington. A small game license is needed for these species, with a migratory bird permit for doves and a turkey tag for turkeys.

For more information on this season change, watch this Northwest Sportsman Magazine Outdoor Spotlight interview with WDFW research scientist Michael Schroeder. He discusses the forest grouse season, how the start and end dates are decided, and opportunities to hunt the bird in Washington.

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