“This year we had one of our biggest year-over-year increases in at least the last 35 years,” Ted Dick, the Forest Game Bird Coordinator at the Minnesota DNR said. “So yeah it’s very exciting for grouse hunters.”
For people who prefer long, quiet walks with their hunting dog in the region’s north woods, this fall could be a noisy one. Spring ruffed grouse drumming counts were up 57% as compared to the 18% increase in 2016. That’s a welcome sign for the man responsible for the Minnesota’s unofficial state bird, even if he's not sure what caused it.
“Grouse populations typically fluctuate on approximately a ten-year cycle,” Dick said.
The “cycle” is a trend in grouse populations that ebbs and flows, but what causes it?
“It’s still one of the great mysteries of nature,” Dick said. “There’s been a variety of theories and speculation.” It could possibly be the weather and how grouse forage, like aspen trees, respond to it.
The peak of the cycle is usually in years that end in 9 or 0, so it’s interesting that we had such an increase in 2017. That doesn’t necessarily mean we have even better times ahead. It could mean that Mother Nature jumped the gun a bit. It could also have something to do with habitat.
Every species of wildlife get discussed ad nauseam when it comes to their habitat and generally the lack of it. But are grouse different? Do we have a lot of trees and therefore, a lot of grouse?
“There is a correlation between good habitat and grouse abundance,” Dick answered. “If you look at some of the “I” states, Illinois, Indiana and places like Ohio and Pennsylvania, they typically don’t have the forest management, particularly aspen management like we do.”
The forests in those states have gotten older and their populations have dropped off. They don’t get the big increases in the cycle anymore. So does the timber industry play a bigger role in the population of grouse than we realized?
“We’re very fortunate to have an active timber industry and acres and acres of appropriate habitat.” Dick said. “I think the last time we did an informal analysis, we had more young aspen forest-which is prime grouse habitat-than Michigan and Wisconsin combined.“
So does more timber industry equal more ruffed grouse?
“That’s not to say we don’t have issues,” Dick warned. “We’ve been losing land and some of the timber companies have been selling off land, so there’s reasons to be concerned. But right now the habitat is very good (in Minnesota).”
While we saw a large increase in drumming counts this year, does it mean that we’re enjoying the “good ol’ days” of grouse hunting?
“Our harvest used to be higher,” Dick said. “But that was primarily a function of having more hunters.” Birds per hunter is still pretty good, but, like other outdoor sports, the number of hunters is declining.
“Our highest peaks were over a million birds in harvest, even up to close to a million and a half,” Dick explained. “Lately we’re more in the 400 to 500 thousand range just because there’s fewer people doing it.”
Despite strong numbers, conservation and habitat creation are still top priorities for the game managers. Dick has projects in the works that will create more suitable habitat for grouse, keep the timber industry in motion and create more land access for hunters.
“We’re fortunate to have the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund,” Dick said. “The Ruffed Grouse Society has been partnering with other groups to take advantage of those funds.”
They use the funds to acquire timber company land if it becomes available. Sometimes land will get purchased privately and it will cut off access to public land. These projects help keep that access available.
“Lately we’ve been involved in 6 million dollars worth of projects to acquire land in Hubbard, Cass and St Louis counties,” Dick said.
You may not see those become State Wildlife Management areas however. Instead they’ll be donated to the counties for use in timber production. That way it continues to be a revenue source and the habitat goes through the regrowth process that ruffed grouse and other wildlife enjoy.
While the majority of hunters are the world’s biggest conservationists, ruffed grouse hunters might be in a category all their own. It seems that they don’t care if they actually harvest a bird or not.
“It’s interesting that you bring that up,” Dick said. “A lot of people hunt grouse just to be out in the woods and relieve stress; just be with friends and family. It’s just to enjoy nature. For me, if I shoot anything it’s just a bonus.“
On that note, most hunters will agree that it is just nice to be out there and see the wildlife. We all want to shoot limits, but for the most part, that usually is just icing on the cake. One reason for the different outlooks by different hunters could be the investment. Waterfowl hunters need big bank accounts for decoy rigs and deer hunters spend countless hours watching over food plots. But ruffed grouse hunters?
“For an introductory hunting sport it doesn’t get any easier than grouse hunting because all you need is a decent pair of boots and a gun,” Dick said.
And the realization that a quiet walk in the woods-and possibly an active timber industry- is all you ever need.
Ruffed Grouse season opens 9/16 in Minnesota.