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Small Game Hunting in Alaska
Status of Upland Game

Status of Upland Game 2012

This report covers the current status of snowshoe hare and the species of grouse and ptarmigan that occur within the road system portion of the southern Interior and Southcentral Alaska. Most of these species fluctuate in an eight to ten-year natural cycle that is influenced by weather, predation, forest fires, and other factors. In 2012, the southern Interior and Southcentral Alaska experienced warm weather conditions in early spring in addition to a significant snowmelt. This changed into cool and damp conditions through May. In June, warm temperatures prevailed but with a mix of rain and dry weather. These conditions were mostly favorable for brood production and survival, and for the insects and vegetation on which they depend.

Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed grouse occur throughout forested areas in the Interior where aspen is plentiful, and along major drainages with large willow bars. The ruffed grouse cycle peaked in 2005, declined to a very low level in 2010, and began to rebound in 2011. In the Interior fall numbers are expected to be at moderate densities in the best aspen-dominated habitats and relatively low in peripheral areas. Ruffed grouse were translocated to the Matanuska/Susitna Valleys in the late 1980s and onto the northern Kenai Peninsula in the mid-1990s. To date these populations have not fluctuated in any manner resembling a “natural” cycle. The Mat/Su population has slowly increased and now contains pockets of moderate density with continued range expansion. The Kenai Peninsula population has remained at very low density near the release sites northeast of Nikiski and east of Sterling and Cooper Landing.

Spruce Grouse

Spruce grouse have the largest range of Alaskan grouse and are found throughout most of the spruce-dominated forests of Alaska. Spruce grouse tend to be most plentiful along larger drainages where white spruce is a major species. Spruce grouse numbers also peaked in 2005 and have been declining since. Southern Interior populations are currently at low levels, but to be on an increasing trend. Southcentral and Kenai Peninsula populations are expected to be at moderate densities and should also exhibit an increasing trend.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Sharp-tailed grouse prefer more open grass and shrub habitat, and are often associated with recent burns and large agricultural areas. The best sharptail habitat occurs in the southern Interior but low-density pockets also occur along the upper Copper, and middle and upper Yukon rivers. Sharp-tailed populations have also been cycling down. Spring counts of males on leks in the Delta Junction area have remained at low densities since 2007 and remain at low to moderate densities. Populations in the better habitat east and south of Delta Junction and north of Tok should have moderate densities of sharp-tailed grouse. Other less favorable habitats are expected to have low to very low densities this fall. The huge areas that burned in 2004 along the Steese and Taylor highways are now providing excellent sharp-tailed habitat, with some indications that birds are beginning to occupy these areas.

Willow Ptarmigan

Willow ptarmigan occupy subalpine habitats dominated by small, willow-lined drainages. Willow ptarmigan populations should be near a cyclic peak, and in 2008 and 2009 apparently reached very high numbers in northern and western Alaska. In 2012, spring breeding counts indicated a modest increase in survey locations throughout the eastern Alaska Range, Southcentral, and the Interior, however remain below the densities observed during the previous peak in 1999. Densities along the western Denali Highway remain very low. Willow ptarmigan in the Chugach, Kenai, and Talkeetna mountains are expected to be at moderate densities.

Rock Ptarmigan

Rock ptarmigan occur in higher more open alpine and subalpine zones with moderate slope and numerous stands of dwarf birch. Rock ptarmigan throughout the central portion of the Alaska Range have remained low since a mild peak in 1999. In addition, the adverse weather that occurred in this area in June 2006 was also detrimental to rock ptarmigan broods, resulting in very low numbers which continued through 2010. As a result winter ptarmigan hunting was closed in GMU 13B. Five locations in the central Alaska Range of previously occupied rock ptarmigan habitat were examined this spring with continued low to very low densities observed. The counts of territorial males along the summits of the Steese Highway have been consistently low for the last five years, when compared to historical data. This fall and winter numbers are expected to be moderately low in the alpine areas north and east of Fairbanks, very low in the central Alaska Range, and moderate in limited habitats in the Talkeetna, Chugach and Kenai Mountains.

White-tailed Ptarmigan

White-tailed ptarmigan occur in pockets of low to moderate densities in rugged, alpine habitats from the Alaska Range south through the Kenai Peninsula. Population data on whitetails is insufficient to determine trends but this smallest of our upland birds appears to be maintaining populations within historical ranges in Southcentral Alaska.

Snowshoe Hare

Snowshoe hare occur throughout the road system and prefer willow/alder and other early succession vegetation that emerges after burns or mechanical clearing. Hare numbers also fluctuate dramatically in a natural cycle that appears to progress from north to south and east to west. Throughout most of the Interior snowshoe hare numbers were very high from 2006 through 2009. In 2010 and again in 2011 hare numbers declined sharply, and in 2012 are likely at or very near the bottom of their cycle in most of the Interior. Densities are less uniform in Southcentral Alaska but hare numbers are also declining in most areas north of Anchorage. Snowshoe hare numbers on the Kenai Peninsula apparently reached a peak last year, are still high this year, but will likely begin declining as early as this spring and summer.