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Scott Rall: Porcupines and other hazards exist in the grasslands

Scott Rall

Daily Globe outdoors writer 

I was visiting with a fellow pheasant hunter a few days ago and he told me that the pheasant hunting opener was only about 79 days away.

It was true and it only reinforced just how fast time flies. It was only a few weeks back that we were dealing with 21 inches of rain in the month of June.

I have said many times that the anticipation of an outdoor event is almost as integral to the event as planning it. You call up the other members of the group and the conversation almost always ends with more anticipation than you had before the call.

The trip that I am anticipating more than any other this fall is a trip to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands just west of Pierre, S.D. This trip is to chase prairie grouse.

These consist of sharp tail grouse and the greater prairie chickens. The trip takes place about a week ahead of the pheasant opener in Minnesota and so it can be taken without missing any hunting opportunities in my home state.

I have made this trip only one other time. We stayed in Lower Brule at a hotel attached to the casino. The hunting was a 45-mile trip one way and almost all of that distance was on gravel roads.

The first time I went I managed to kill a sharp tail grouse with the windshield of my truck. There was some agricultural traffic that we did not want to hold up so we marked the spot and decided to stop on the way home top pick up the bird.

This was an effort in futility. A coyote or other predator mush have found my road-killed bird before my return and by the time I got back it was gone. We never did find it.

On this first grouse hunting outing we had pretty good luck and each member of the party bagged three birds over a two-day period. The average harvest is just under one bird per day even though the limit is three birds per day.

We intended to go back the following year which would have been the fall of 2013. In the days leading up to our hunt for which I had great amounts of anticipation, the weather went bad and the area received 35-plus inches of snow. This was the same storm that killed all the cattle you heard about in the news. It was a washout for that year and we started on the anticipation for the next try in the fall of 2014.

The plan after year one had always been to try camping in the grasslands instead of another hotel option. You can camp just about anywhere you want in the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. The only real restriction is that you cannot travel cross county with vehicles. You can pull off about 100 feet from any road but the over hill and over dale is not an option.

There is a map of the roads and you need to stay on these. You can foot traffic anywhere you want, though.

We are taking one travel trailer and several tents and the least number of trucks possible. The group is six hunters and nine dogs.

The season opens in late September but we go a week or two later to avoid the rush. This time of year it can still be very warm and a dog cannot hunt very long with temperatures in 80s.

There are prairie rattlesnakes in the vicinity so to be safe the dogs need a rattle snake vaccine. I did not even know there was a preventative rattlesnake shot. If you do not vaccinate your dog against a snake bite the dog can certainly die if bitten.

Most hunters around here do not do take this measure because of the cost. It is so rarely done around here, no veterinarian carries the stuff.

A vile of rattlesnake vaccine is over $700 and it has a short shelf life. This means a special order and additional cost. It consists of one shot now and another one in 30 days and requires some additional time for the dog to develop the resistance.

Even if this preventative measure is taken it does not mean the dog is totally good to go. If the dog is bitten it will most likely be on injured reserve for a few days before it can go hunting again, but the chance of death is greatly reduced. My boys means so much to me that there is no way I would take them to this spot with the shots they need.

Another hazard you will face when hunting prairie grouse is prickly pear cactus.

You have all seen them before. They don’t get very tall but have thorns sharper than any implement sharpened by man.

I learned this the hard way the first time I went. I did not take any of the necessary utensils to remove a cactus thorn when my boys busted though a patch of these buggers.

They will stick in the bottom of the soles of good hunting boots and those are a lot tougher than the pads of my grouse-chasing friends.

There is little you can do to prevent this issue. You can try dog boots with which I have had very little success. First off, the dog has no desire to run around with dog boots duck taped to their feet and most of the boots I have tried and seen others try over the past 25 years are no match for a cactus thorn.

I have used dog boots successfully in hunting areas that had sand burs. These are a weed with really sharp seeds that attach like a cocklebur. These seeds are so sharp that when you use a fabric gloved hand to pull the seed out of the other fabric gloved hand, your clothes or a dog’s foot, the spines just puncture the glove and now you have spines in both places. Leather dog boots are sturdy enough and can prevent this problem with the dog’s feet.

No other material can get the job done.

I just can’t hunt with heavy leather gloves. I have seen dogs tearing along hunting full speed that will just come to a complete stop when they get several sand burs in the pads. I don’t hunt in these areas anymore.

What you need for cactus thorns in the National Grasslands is a tweezers. This will allow you stop when necessary and remove a cactus thorn.

The year I did not have a tweezers the cactus thorns would either get set so deep or break off leaving only a short stub exposed. I could not grab onto this with my fingers and it was just a big problem. You need to be very aware of this cactus issue and not hunt a dog past the point of what is safe. We try to avoid areas where there is too much of this hazard.

Dodging rattlesnakes is not a 100 effort, but if you stay out of prairie dog towns and the immediate areas that surround them it will help reduce the chance of running into one.

There is one other dog hazard in this region and that is porcupines. In the grasslands they have draws and coulees that have trees in the bottom. These prickly little critters use these areas as well as other wildlife as habitat and to catch some shade on hot days. I have seen them but never had a dog tangle with one. I am lucky in that regard.

Each area that you hunt in has its own sort of issues. The grasslands are no different. Preparation is the key.

If the weather cooperates this year it will be an interesting adventure to try camping in this region. I have yet to hear if the grouse populations are high or low. In the end, the total harvest is not really all that important. I will have one more adventure with friends that can go on my wall of fame. In the end, if the dogs stay safe and we have a quality hunting outing that is all that matters.

I have said often that the price you pay for your dog is the least consequential part of dog ownership. After a few rattlesnake vaccines and a first aid kit the size of a car trunk, the cost of the dog will be completely forgotten.

Anticipation is an important part of any trip but planning is important. If you decide to take a hunting trip to a new location, check into what you will need to have in order to keep your dogs safe.

The dog cant go online so it is up to you to do the necessary research. The dogs will thank you and proper planning will go a long way to ensuring you have a quality outing. Inviting the right hunting partners also has a big effect on whether it turns out to be a trip you will never forget or one you wished you could.