Rabbit, grouse populations good for hunting season, DWR says

Pockets of cottontail rabbits should provide good hunting in Utah this fall. In some areas of the state, DWR biologists are seeing more rabbits than they've seen in several years. | Photo by Brent Stettler, Utah Division of Wildlife Services

ST. GEORGE – As four upland hunts draw closer, biologists with the Division of Wildlife Resources have some encouraging news: Cottontail rabbit numbers are up in many areas of the state. And forest grouse and mourning dove populations are doing well too.

The cottontail rabbit, forest grouse, dove and snowshoe hare hunts start Sept. 1.

You can see where these species live in Utah by viewing the distribution maps on pages 31–34 of the 2012–2013 Utah Upland Game & Turkey Guidebook.

The free guidebook is available at wildlife.utah.gov/guidebooks.

The guidebook also provides descriptions of each species, including a color drawing of the species and a description of the type of habitat in which the species is found.

The descriptions are available on pages 42–48.

The following is a hunting preview for each species:

Cottontail rabbit

Jason Robinson, upland game coordinator for the DWR, said many upland game populations, including cottontail rabbits, go through population cycles. Cottontail rabbits bottomed out in Utah about two years (ago), but their numbers have been climbing since.

“We’ve received some really encouraging cottontail rabbit reports,” Robinson said, “especially from the eastern and southern parts of the state. In some cases, biologists are seeing more rabbits than they’ve seen in several years.”

However, Robinson cautions that you won’t find rabbits everywhere. “Overall,” he said, “populations are still fairly low. But if you find a pocket of rabbits, you can enjoy some great hunting.”

To find rabbits, Robinson encourages you to focus your efforts in two areas: The bottom of draws that have tall shrubs or in rocky outcroppings where rabbits have their burrows.

“Early morning is the best time of day to locate rabbits,” he said. “Cottontails have a broad range, and most areas in Utah have them.”

To find the best pockets of habitat, Robinson recommends scouting a location close to home that you can visit multiple times.

DWR biologists in south-central and southwestern Utah are reporting good numbers of cottontail rabbits in most of the counties in that part of the state.

Biologists in Duchesne and Uintah counties in northeastern Utah, and biologists in counties in southeastern Utah, are also seeing more cottontails this year.

Some areas in the West Desert in north-central Utah are also holding more rabbits than they were last year.

Forest grouse

Two forest grouse species—dusky and ruffed—live in Utah.

It’s natural for forest grouse populations to go through ups and downs. This year, forest grouse populations appear to be up slightly in some areas of the state.

“Even though it’s been extremely dry this year,” Robinson said, “the higher elevation areas where the grouse live have received more water than the lower elevations have. And last winter was milder than normal, which helped more forest grouse survive.”

While northern Utah has the most forest grouse habitat and typically holds the most birds, some of the most promising forest grouse reports have come from biologists and officers in the south-central and southwestern parts of the state.

“Forest grouse look good this year,” said Lt. Scott Dalebout, a DWR conservation officer in southwestern Utah. “The dry spring and the wet late summer have been perfect for these birds. I have been seeing birds all over the region.”

To find forest grouse, Robinson recommends hunting in forested areas that have a mix of aspen and conifer with plenty of shrubs.

“Ruffed grouse are often found in aspen stands,” he said, “while dusky grouse are often found on ridges that have spruce and fir trees on them. For both species, focus your efforts at about 7,000 to 9,500 feet in elevation, and look for shrubs with berries.”

Robinson said forest grouse are underutilized by hunters. “There’s lots of public land filled with aspen and pine trees to hunt them on,” he said. “The scenery is beautiful, they’re a fun bird to hunt and they taste great.”

Mourning dove

The hot, dry summer has kept plenty of mourning doves in Utah. If the hot, dry weather continues, good numbers of doves should be available when the hunt opens Sept. 1.

Robinson said abundant rain that fell in Utah in 2011 is paying dividends this year. “Even though there aren’t as many sunflowers this year,” he said, “there’s plenty of sunflower seed around thanks to all of the sunflowers that were produced last year. The doves have plenty to eat.”

To find doves, Robinson recommends finding a water source or an area that has sunflowers or other weedy vegetation. If you find an area that has water and the right type of vegetation, you may have found an area that will draw doves like a magnet.

“Some of the best habitat for doves is found on private property,” he said. “Make sure you get written permission from the landowner before hunting these areas.”

Robinson said some of the best dove hunting in Utah happens in the southern part of the state. “Even if it doesn’t rain,” he said, “some doves start migrating south in late August. Even if some of the birds have left northern Utah by Sept. 1, good numbers should still be available in the southwestern part of the state.”

Snowshoe hare

Robinson said the number of snowshoe hares in Utah is similar to last year or down slightly. Fortunately, the snowshoe hare hunt runs until March 15. “The long season gives hunters plenty of time to find areas that have good hare populations,” he said.

To find snowshoe hares, Robinson suggests hunting forested areas that are between 8,000 to 9,000 feet in elevation. Areas that have lots of spruce and fir trees provide great habitat for the hares.

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