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Minnesota ruffed grouse preview: Uncertainty, cautious optimism surround grouse hunting prospects as opener approaches

Sep 08, 2019 03:22PM ● By Editor
A male ruffed grouse holds court on his drumming log in May 2017 in Beltrami Island State Forest. Minnesota's ruffed grouse season opens Saturday, Sept. 14. Photo: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald 

By Brad Dokken of The Grand Forks Herald - September 8, 2019

The forecast for Minnesota’s upcoming ruffed grouse season can be looked at in two ways:

From the perspective of a glass that’s half-empty or the perspective a glass that’s half-full.

From a half-empty point of view, something seems to be affecting the number of ruffed grouse chicks recruited to the population in recent years. Taking the glass-half-full view, ruffed grouse hunting in Minnesota still is better than anywhere else in the country.

Even in a mediocre year, hunters in Minnesota traditionally shoot 250,000 ruffed grouse, a number that can surpass 1 million in a good year.

“Right now, optimism reins, but I don’t know if there’s much of a basis for that,” said Ted Dick, forest wildlife habitat consultant for the Department of Natural Resources in Grand Rapids, Minn. “People aren’t out in the woods a whole lot in July and August. We’ve had some good reports (of ruffed grouse broods), but you really need to get out there and actually hunt it.

“They’re not all gone, but we’ll see what happens come (opening day).”

Minnesota’s season for ruffed grouse, spruce grouse and Hungarian partridge opens Saturday, Sept. 14. Sharptail season opens Sept. 14 in the Northwest Zone but not until Saturday, Oct. 12 in the East-central Zone.

Unlike pheasants or prairie grouse, sampling ruffed grouse production is difficult because of the thick forest cover the birds inhabit, and the DNR doesn’t conduct brood surveys. 

Traditionally, spring drumming count surveys, in which wildlife managers follow set routes and listen for the sound male ruffed grouse make by beating their wings to attract a mate, have been the best tool for measuring ruffed grouse populations, which historically rise in a 10-year cycle of boom and bust.

The peak of the cycle generally occurs in years ending in 9 or 0, with counts ranging from 2 drums per stop during peak years to as low as 0.6 per stop near the bottom of the cycle.

The higher the drumming counts, the better the hunting, the thinking goes.

The setback of 2017

Based on that logic, 2017 should have been a banner year for ruffed grouse hunters. Spring counts soared to 2.1 drums per stop -- a whopping 57 percent increase from the previous year -- and Dick was among the prognosticators predicting an epic season.

It didn’t happen; instead, hunters in 2017 shot about 285,000 ruffed grouse, down from almost 309,000 in 2016, DNR statistics show.

Hunters weren’t happy, and Dick says he still hears about it.

“I told everyone to get more dogs and more ammo and don’t go out in the woods on your own -- it’s not safe because there’s too many grouse you’ll be fighting back,” he said. “That didn’t pan out.”

Last year’s hunting season was slightly better, but preliminary numbers show the 2018 harvest still will lag below 300,000 ruffed grouse, Dick says. The shortage of young birds likely was a factor. During last year’s 37th annual Ruffed Grouse Society National Grouse and Woodcock Hunt near Grand Rapids, the ratio of young ruffed grouse to adult females was the lowest in the national hunt’s history.

Something’s changing in northern Minnesota forests, Dick says, whether it’s habitat, weather patterns or diseases such as west Nile virus.

“The recruitment of young birds particularly is concerning the last few years,” Dick said. “It hasn’t been what we’ve hoped.

“There just hasn’t been a lot of young birds and that’s evident in my hunting, too,” he added. “I might be spending more of my time looking for my dog than paying attention, but I judge the success of the hatch and juvenile survival by how many larger groups of birds you see earlier in the season -- the birds we call naive or dumb or the inexperienced birds that are right on the trail -- we just don’t have that anymore.”

Instead, birds are warier, more spread out and in thicker cover, he said; hunters are flushing fewer birds, even if they pound the brush with good dogs. 

That’s apparent during the national hunt, as well, Dick says.

“I would say on average on a thing like that, where you have several people hunting, it’s definitely 20 grouse flushes or less during the day, on average, and probably closer to 12 on average,” Dick said. “If we hunted hard 15 years ago, my buddies and I used to judge a good day was closer to 50 or 55 grouse flushes.”

Cause for optimism

Dick says he got out of the “prediction business” after 2017, but judging by drumming counts, hunters who put in the effort should have at least a fair to average season. Statewide, this year’s drumming count was 1.5 drums per stop, with the highest count in northwest Minnesota, where the survey tallied 2.1 drums per stop. In the northeast survey region, which comprises the core of Minnesota’s ruffed grouse range, the count was 1.6 drums per stop.

Gretchen Mehmel, manager of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area at Norris Camp south of Roosevelt, Minn., said the drumming count in her work area, which includes parts of Beltrami Island State Forest, was 2.1 drums per stop, up from 1.7 last year.

Brood conditions were good, she said, with favorable weather during the late May and early June period when chicks are especially vulnerable.

“We have been seeing a few broods around this summer, but it’s been sporadic -- not a great abundance but not a dearth of sightings, either,” Mehmel said in an email. “I’d say it will be at least average, and I’m hopeful it will be a better than average hunting season.”

More testing

The DNR this fall is expanding its effort to test ruffed grouse for west Nile virus as part of a sampling campaign that began last year with Wisconsin and Michigan. Last year’s sampling, which fell far short of the DNR’s 400-bird goal, was limited to areas near Bemidji and Grand Rapids. This year, area wildlife offices across northern Minnesota will have sampling kits available to hunters. 

A study in Pennsylvania has shown the mosquito-borne disease may affect ruffed grouse populations in areas with marginal habitat.

“We want to learn more about west Nile virus in ruffed grouse, because of concerns that it might be impacting the production of young birds, which make up a large portion of what hunters see in the fall,” said Charlotte Roy, grouse project leader with the Minnesota DNR.

Results from last year’s sampling haven’t been made available to the public.

Hunters who pick up kits and assist with the sampling will need to collect blood on filter paper strips within 30 minutes of harvest along with submitting hearts and a few feathers to determine the age and sex of the birds. GPS coordinates indicating where birds were shot also are required but won’t be made public.

Each kit includes a cold pack, along with return postage and complete instructions. Hunters who submit samples correctly will be entered into a drawing for a Stevens Model 555 16 gauge over/under shotgun from the Ruffed Grouse Society, and Pine Ridge Grouse Camp near Remer, Minn., will offer a guided hunt.

“Anyone who wants to participate, please help us out,” Dick said.

Despite the uncertainty surrounding ruffed grouse populations in recent years, finding a place to hunt won’t be a problem. Taking the glass-half-full point of view, Minnesota has more than 528 designated hunting areas covering nearly 1 million acres in ruffed grouse range, 40 designated ruffed grouse management areas and 600 miles of hunter walking trails.

“We have more habitat and better conditions than anybody in the Lower 48 as far as grouse, and our harvest backs that up even when our numbers are down,” Dick said. “This is a good place to do it, but it just recently hasn’t been up to the standards that we’ve become accustomed to over the last couple of decades.”

To read the original article and see more of Brad Dokken's Outdoors columns, follow this link to the Grand Forks Herald website.

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