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Cottontail numbers highest in 5 years

Five upland game hunts start Sept. 1

If it's been awhile since you hunted cottontail rabbits, this fall might be the perfect time to pick up a shotgun or a small-caliber rifle and head afield.

Depending on where you hunt, you could find good numbers of ruffed grouse when Utah’s forest grouse hunt starts Sept. 1.

Depending on where you hunt, you could find good numbers of ruffed grouse when Utah’s forest grouse hunt starts Sept. 1.

Photo by Ron Stewart

Also, if you've never hunted before, hunting cottontail rabbits is an excellent way to get started. And hunting cottontails is a perfect way to introduce young people to hunting.

From late July through late August each year, biologists with the Division of Wildlife Resources survey 14 rabbit routes across Utah. Reports are still coming into the DWR's Salt Lake City office from biologists in the field. But on Aug. 21, Jason Robinson, upland game coordinator for the DWR, says the reports he's received so far indicate cottontail rabbit populations are on the rise in Utah.

"Rabbit numbers are the highest they've been in five years," Robinson says.

Robinson says the Uinta Basin in northeastern Utah might be one of the best places to hunt rabbits this fall. Good numbers of rabbits have also been spotted in the southwestern portion of Iron County.

You can see where cottontail rabbits, and all of the other upland game species in Utah live, by looking at the distribution maps on pages 34–40 of the free 2014–2015 Utah Upland Game and Turkey Guidebook.

Robinson and Blair Stringham provide the following preview for the five upland game hunts that start Sept. 1:

Cottontail rabbits

Robinson says cottontail rabbits have been growing in number since reaching the bottom of their population cycle in 2010. (After rabbit populations peak, they decline in number for about five years. Then, after their numbers bottom out, the number of rabbits starts to increase again. Only five years after bottoming out, their numbers are at their peak again.)

Robinson says biologists saw more rabbits this summer than they did in 2013. "There are a lot more rabbits in Utah now than there was a year ago," he says.

Not all areas have seen the same level of increase, though. But even in Tooele and Juab counties, were the increase has been slower, more rabbits were spotted this year than in 2013.

To find cottontails, Robinson suggests hunting early in the morning and late in the afternoon. "That's when the rabbits are the most active," he says. "Early morning and late in the afternoon are prime times for the rabbits to feed."

If you're looking for cottontails in lower elevation areas, look in the bottom of valleys that have tall sagebrush and deep, loose soil that have burrows the rabbits can use. If you're in mid-elevation areas, look for hillsides that have large boulders, thick sagebrush or other thick vegetation that the rabbits can hide in.

Dove

For several years, DWR biologists have been capturing doves and placing leg bands on the birds. Based on the number of banded birds taken by hunters over the past few years, Blair Stringham, migratory game bird coordinator for the DWR, says the dove population that migrates through Utah each spring and fall is stable.

How many doves will be in Utah when the season starts on Sept. 1 depends on the weather between now and the opener. "The state has received some much-needed rain this month," Stringham says. "The downside is the rain will cause at least some of the doves to fly south before the season starts."

Stringham says southern Utah is one of the best places in Utah to hunt doves. "Southern Utah has a warmer climate," he says, "so the birds tend to stay a little longer in that part of the state."

To find the greatest number of doves, focus on two things: grain fields and water holes. "Grain fields that have a water hole near them can be dove-hunting hotspots," he says.

Stringham reminds you that you must have written permission from the landowner before hunting on private property. He also provides some additional reminders:

The dove season is twice as long this year. You can hunt doves from Sept. 1 to Oct. 30. And the daily dove bag limit has been raised. You can have a combined total of 15 mourning and white-winged doves.

While you're afield, shoot plenty of Eurasian-collared doves. "Eurasian-collared doves taste great," he says. "And there's no limit on the number of Eurasian-collared doves you can take."

Forest grouse (ruffed and dusky)

DWR biologists don't conduct forest grouse surveys. But when they're working in forest grouse habitat, they watch closely for grouse.

The Wasatch Plateau is the mountain range that runs through the center of Utah, north to south. With the exception of the portion of the plateau in Salt Lake County and the northern part of Utah County, the number of grouse available to you should be similar to last year. And 2013 was a good year for grouse in Utah.

Robinson says a snowstorm in June dropped large amounts of snow in the mountains in Salt Lake County and the northern part of Utah County. The snow probably killed many of the young grouse that were born just weeks before.

Outside of that area, Robinson expects the number of dusky and ruffed grouse to be similar to 2013.

Robinson says ruffed grouse are found along the Wasatch Plateau and east into the Uinta Mountains. He says Cache County, and portions of the Wasatch Plateau not affected by the June snow storm, will be the best places to look for ruffed grouse this fall.

Dusky grouse are more widely distributed in Utah than ruffed grouse. Some of the best places to hunt this fall include Cache County and portions of the Wasatch Plateau not affected by the June snowstorm. Areas near Cedar City in southwestern Utah, such as Cedar Mountain and the Pine Valley area, also hold good numbers of grouse.

"The Deep Creek and Stansbury mountains also hold good numbers of dusky grouse," he says. "But the areas where the grouse are found on those mountains can be challenging to get to."

To find grouse this fall, Robinson suggests looking in the following areas:

Ruffed grouse are usually found in stands of aspen trees, or close to the stands. They're especially attracted to stands that have lots of young aspen trees in them. Aspen stands that have shrubs with berries and a water source nearby are especially attractive to ruffed grouse.

Dusky grouse live higher in elevation. A good spot to look for them is the zone where aspen tree stands transition into conifer forest. Ridgelines that have pine and Douglas fir trees on them are also attractive areas.

Because grouse spend most of the day on the ground, you can find birds anytime of the day. However, if you want to hunt grouse when the birds are most active and accessible, hunt early in the morning when the birds are feeding. After they've filled their crops with food, they retire to heavier vegetation to rest as their food digests. They won't become active again until later in the afternoon, when they feed one more time before flying into trees to roost for the night.

If you have a dog, mid-morning can be a great time to hunt. "By the time mid-morning arrives," Robinson says, "the birds will be done feeding. If you wait until then, the birds will have left plenty of scent on the ground for your dog to follow."

Snowshoe hare

Only a few DWR biologists have snowshoe hares in the areas they manage. Those who do say the number of hares should be similar to last year.

Snowshoe hares live in high-elevation conifer and aspen stands that are also home to dusky grouse. Stands of young pine trees — at least 8,000 to 9,000 feet in elevation — are especially attractive to snowshoe hares.

In Utah, snowshoe hares live along the Wasatch Plateau (the range of mountains that run north to south, through the center of the state), and east into the Uinta Basin.

"Waiting for the first snowstorm of the year, and then looking for the hares' unique footprint, is one of the best ways to find them," Robinson says. "The print looks like a miniature snowshoe."

Robinson says snowshoe hares don't have a large home range. "If you find an area that has lots of tracks in it," he says, "there's a good chance a hare is hunkered down in some vegetation nearby."

Snowshoes or snowmobiles are often required to hunt snowshoe hares after the snow falls.

Crow

The first crow hunt ever held in Utah also starts Sept. 1.

To find crows, Stringham encourages you to scout before the season starts. Farm fields and cattle feedlots in Box Elder, Weber and Davis counties in northern Utah, and fields and feedlots in the Uinta Basin in northeastern Utah, are some of the best places in Utah to look for crows.

If the crows you find are on private land, Stringham reminds you that you must obtain written permission from the landowner before hunting on his or her land.

Once you find some crows, the two best ways to hunt them involve using crow decoys and a crow call.

Flyways the birds use, as they travel to and from their roosting and feeding areas, are good places to hunt them. Once you've identified a flight path, set your decoys up on or near the path.

A second method involves driving along roads until you find a group of crows that are feeding or roosting. Set your decoys up near the crows and see if you can call some in.

"Whichever method you choose," Stringham says, "make sure you're covered in camouflage, from head to toe. And don't move much. Crows are extremely wary birds. And they have excellent eyesight."

Stringham also reminds you that it's illegal to shoot ravens, a bird that looks very much like a crow.

Information that will help you identify crows and ravens is available on page 54 of the free 2014–2015 Utah Upland Game and Turkey Guidebook.

More information

If you have questions about hunting upland game in Utah, call the nearest Division of Wildlife Resources office or the DWR's Salt Lake City office at 801-538-4700.

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