Upland game hunters may have additional opportunities to pursue chukar partridge thanks to an effort by Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) to introduce the birds in Larimer County.
In August, CPW biologists released 168 chukar on public land in the Lower Poudre Canyon. The release site, located 30 minutes west of Fort Collins, supports ideal habitat for the birds and has the potential to provide a close-to-home hunting location for northern Colorado residents.
“Our primary goal with this transplant project is to establish a self-sustaining, huntable population of chukar along the Northern Front Range for upland bird hunters,” said Mark Vieira, CPW wildlife biologist. “We are always striving to improve hunting opportunities and are excited about the prospect of offering chukar hunts in the near future.”
Native to Asia, the red-legged chukar partridge is a popular game bird among hunters. As such, the birds have been widely distributed throughout the western United States. Currently, chukar are found only in localized areas of Colorado’s Western Slope. If successful, the Poudre Canyon transplant will mark the first time the birds have been established in Colorado east of the Continental Divide.
CPW will release an additional 200 wild chukar in 2015, providing that neighboring states can supply enough of the wild birds to meet this objective. Wildlife managers captured chukar in northwest Utah for this year’s transplant. The birds were transported from Utah to Fort Collins and were disease tested before they were released.
The combination of steep, grassy hillsides and rocky outcroppings of the Poudre Canyon provides near-perfect habitat for chukar. The area also features abundant, non-native cheatgrass, which is a primary food source for the birds and important forage for sustaining long-term populations. In addition, the site offers a year-round water supply from springs, creeks and the nearby Poudre River.
State wildlife managers first introduced chukar to Larimer County in the 1940s. However, the birds, which were released on flatland prairie near Windsor, did not fare well. CPW biologists believe the primary reason these early attempts failed is because their predecessors used pen-raised birds. Learning from past experience, biologists hope that the wild-caught birds used for this effort, along with the optimal habitat of the Poudre Canyon, will yield a much better outcome.
“Studies show that wild birds have a greater chance of survival in these types of projects,” said Vieira. “Wild birds are much more adept at avoiding predators, locating food and withstanding harsh weather. This is why we’ve been working so closely with Utah to ensure that we can capture birds in their natural habitat and environment.”
Because of the close proximity to the Front Range and potential for significant hunter interest, CPW has closed the chukar season in Poudre Canyon and adjacent game management units (GMUs 9,19 and 191) for the 2014 season. The closure will likely remain in effect through 2015 to give CPW the opportunity to transplant additional birds into these GMUs next summer.
Like all game birds, chukar populations are highly susceptible to severe weather, drought during the breeding season and predation. As a result, wildlife biologists remain cautiously optimistic but emphasize that the birds must overcome some significant obstacles before the transplant can be deemed a success.
“Obviously, there are quite a few variables that can affect a project like this,” said Vieira. “But the habitat in the canyon is ideal, so we are hopeful that the birds will thrive in their new environment. A lot will depend on how well these Utah birds adapt to our local conditions, how severe our winters are the next couple of years and how well the birds can avoid predation, particularly from raptors.”
In the meantime, radio collars have been placed on some of the released chukar to monitor mortality rates and nesting success. CPW will provide updates on its website and Facebook pages about the status of the transplanted birds, as well as ongoing information about when the Poudre Canyon may open to hunting.
Chukar Hunting in Colorado
For hunters who want to experience the thrill of a chukar hunt without the wait, western Colorado offers a variety of locations and hunting opportunities. Chukar are most abundant near the border of Mesa and Garfield counties and in the rocky hills of Montrose and Delta counties. According to CPW biologists, the greatest concentrations of chukar are along the Colorado and Gunnison river drainages below 6,000 feet.
“Typically, the best place to find chukar is in dry, rocky terrain with little tree cover and sparse shrub and grass cover,” said Craig McLaughlin, CPW terrestrial manager and avid upland hunter. “It’s important to do some scouting and focus your efforts on open country with steep canyons. Expect to cover a lot of ground and look for natural water sources or guzzlers. Chukar live in dry terrain, but they will visit water sources regularly.”
If you’ve never hunted chukar before, be forewarned: You’ll likely hunt harder for “red legs” than any other game bird. In fact, chukar hunting is more akin to pursuing big game than upland game. Unlike pheasants and quail that generally prefer flatland prairie, the chukar partridge inhabits rugged territory. The birds thrive in rocky outcroppings and can bounce effortlessly along canyon walls. Chukar will occasionally move to kinder, gentler ground to feed in grassy fields, but hunting chukar almost always involves serious, lung-busting hiking over steep terrain.
“Hunting chukar is some of the most challenging upland hunting there is,” said McLaughlin. “My best advice is to start at the top of steep canyons and hunt along the ridgeline, as attempting to reach chukar by hunting uphill is exhausting. Most birds will be found on the upper third of slopes, and they often flush to land at a lower elevation. Hunting downhill is most productive.”
Chukar also have the reputation for being wily, elusive quarry that spook easily and flush well out of shotgun range. In addition, chukar are famous for not holding well for bird dogs. Nevertheless, like all upland hunting, a good dog is a valuable asset on a chukar hunt. A well-trained pointer that works at medium range is likely the best choice in open country, but flushing dogs – if trained to work below coveys and push birds toward hunters – are also a viable option. Regardless of the breed, the key attribute here is a “well-trained” dog. A chukar hunt is not the time or place to work with an inexperienced or unskilled dog, as the unforgiving terrain can pose a serious threat to both dog and handler.
Despite the many obstacles, pursuing chukar can be a truly rewarding experience. And hunters who are willing to pay their dues to harvest a few of these birds, often become some of the most devoted wingshooters among the entire upland-hunting fraternity.
Both 20-gauge and 12-gauge shotguns are good choices for chukar, although, the lighter weight 20-gauge is easier to carry on longer treks. Because chukar typically do not hold as tightly as other upland birds, most hunters prefer a modified choke or a modified/full combination on double-barrel guns. A size 7 ½ shot is sufficient to harvest birds at close range, but many hunters prefer to use size 6 or 5 shot to take birds at longer distances.
Colorado’s 2014 chukar season opens Sept. 1 and continues through Nov. 30. The daily bag limit is 4 birds, with a total possession limit of 12.