A tougher season for grouse in Minnesota
BY BRAD DOKKEN
Minnesota ruffed grouse hunters might have to content themselves with fewer birds in the vest and more time in the woods to bag those birds this fall.
Grouse numbers are down across the state. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, spring drumming counts declined 10 percent statewide — to 0.9 drums per stop — compared with 1 drum per stop last year and 1.7 drums per stop in 2011.
Minnesota’s season for ruffed grouse, sharp-tailed grouse and other small game opens Saturday.
According to Gretchen Mehmel, manager of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area south of Roosevelt, Minn., this year’s survey in that area yielded an average of 1 drum per stop. That’s actually up from last year, she said, but down from a whopping 6.5 drums per stop in 2009, a peak year for ruffs.
The DNR samples ruffed grouse populations every spring by following a series of designated routes across the bird’s range and listening for the “drumming” sound male birds make as they rapidly beat their wings to attract a mate.
Historically, ruffed grouse populations have followed a 10-year cycle of boom and bust, and this spring’s drumming counts suggest the low point in the cycle is at hand. Counts vary from about 0.8 drums per stop during years of low abundance to 1.9 when the grouse are abundant.
Mehmel said a strong hatch can help offset lower drumming counts, but so, far she’s not seeing much sign of that either in the WMA or Beltrami Island State Forest, one of the most popular destinations for ruffed grouse hunters in northwest Minnesota.
Cold, wet weather in early June likely didn’t help production, she said.
“Things don’t look too great at this point,” Mehmel said. “Drumming counts were way down, and we haven’t seen many broods. We’ve been surprised before with low drumming counts, but usually you bump into a few more broods than we’ve seen. We were not expecting a great year anyway.”
Still, as wildlife managers across ruffed grouse range will attest, estimating populations going into hunting season is difficult because of the thick forested cover the birds inhabit. The best way to sample grouse is to get out and walk the trails or traipse through the brush, and until hunting season begins, few people do that.
“My guess is that it’s not going to be a great season, and hopefully I’m proven wrong,” Mehmel said. “People are always going to be happy with grouse season just being out in the woods.”
Randy Prachar, manager of Roseau River Wildlife Management Area near the Manitoba border, said spring drumming counts there were up, but much of the survey route runs along the perimeter of a wildfire that ravaged a portion of the WMA in the fall of 2011.
As expected, drumming counts the next spring were down as a result.
“I’m not sure exactly how to parse that out, but as far as what we’re seeing recently, we’re not overwhelmed with ruffed grouse numbers,” he said.
Prachar said the broods he’s seen have been young, indicating a late hatch. Broods traditionally disperse in the fall, but that could be later this year because of the timing of the hatch.
“That first week you might see some really stupid birds, and they’ll be bunched up because they’re still in the family grouping,” he said. “But other years when we have an earlier spring there may not be quite as much of that.”
Steady on sharpies
Sharp-tailed grouse numbers, meanwhile, appear to be similar to last year in northwest Minnesota, and the number of birds counted on spring dancing grounds was 9.2, which is similar to the long-term average since 1980, the DNR said. Prachar said he’s gotten a couple of recent reports of sharptail brood sightings, and Mehmel at Red Lake WMA said sharptail counts in her work area were up this past spring.
Typical of years when ruffed grouse numbers are down, woodcock could be the saving grace for hunters this fall. Woodcock are migratory birds, and the season doesn’t open until Sept. 21, but most years, the bulk of the birds that pass through northwest Minnesota arrive in October.
“Woodcock are always a nice filler if there are not as many ruffed grouse,” Mehmel said.
It’s all about timing, though, Prachar said. Last fall was shaping up as a great season for woodcock hunting both at Red Lake and Roseau River WMAs, and then a blizzard that hit Oct. 4 pushed all of the birds farther south.
No special license is required to hunt woodcock, although hunters must be registered through the federal Harvest Information Program, which is required for hunting all migratory game birds.
“Some of the woodcock hunting that can be had here during those flights, it’s really good, and I think people kind of miss out on that one a little bit,” Prachar said. “It’s kind of the ‘secret that isn’t’ in those years when ruffed grouse numbers aren’t so hot.”
Even during the “not-so-hot” years, Minnesota traditionally leads the country in ruffed grouse harvest. According to the DNR, on average, 115,000 hunters shoot 545,000 ruffed grouse in the state each year, and the harvest can exceed 1 million during peak years, which occurred both in 1971 and 1989.
Minnesota hunters last year shot an estimated 355,130 ruffed grouse, compared with 401,280 in 2011-12 and 465,576 in 2010-11 — the highest tally in the past decade.
Regardless of where this year ends up, it won’t be long before hunters are back in the woods on crisp, fall days with shotguns in hand. Whether it’s with a favorite hunting dog or a group of friends, that opportunity in itself can be the reward.
“I don’t think it’s anything to be hanging our heads about, and (that) it’s going to be a lousy season,” Prachar said. “I’m not convinced of that at all. With the right kind of fall day, there’s nothing better than that walk in the woods for grouse.”