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27
Gopher State Grouse Hunting


It looks like another year of tough hunting for grouse in Minnesota, but that won't keep die-hard bird hunters at home!


Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Tim Lesmeister

Talk about contrast. On the first day of our annual grouse hunt, Bill Slaughter and I portaged a boat into Basswood Lake and chased ruffed grouse in the thick cover off of Pipestone Bay. We saw about a dozen grouse and shot a few when they flushed.

The next day we decided to hunt the Superior National Forest off of Highway 1. We slogged through cedar swamps, trudged over high limestone slivers that were surrounded by pine groves, and slithered through clumps of birch and aspen. We only heard two birds flush and never saw either of them. The wonder dog, Bubba, worked hard, but seldom reached that hyperactive state when he's onto the scent of a cowering grouse.


The conversation as we drove to our favorite Italian dining spot in Ely that evening was dominated by the lack of birds. It was the first time in many seasons of grouse hunting those northwoods that Slaughter and I failed to drop a bird during a day of hunting. When Bubba licked my face - his version of a kiss goodnight - as Slaughter dropped me off at the Paddle Inn, it took me by surprise. Bubba's not overly affectionate, so I took that as a sign that even the dog realized something was amiss with the grouse population and he felt bad at not providing us more opportunities. But I knew it wasn't Bubba's fault and I hoped that this was the down year in the cycle and things could only get better.

Well, it looks like we are in for another year of tough hunting. Conditions did not favor the grouse over the winter, and hunters can expect hunting very similar to what they had in 2002.

According to Rick Horton, the chief forest wildlife biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society, he feels much the same as I do.

"It's roughly a 10-year cycle," says Horton. "You can never say exactly that this, or any year, should be a low year. There are too many variables that play into the cycle. It could have been an upturn had we had a snowy winter. We're following the trend right now, and although I had hoped last year was going to be the low year, it unfortunately doesn't look like it will.

"The tough part of the peaks and valleys," continued Horton, "is that you can't say where the bottom is until it's past. Then you see the upturn and go, all right, that was the bottom. Same with the peaks. In 1998 we had a great year and by the fall of '99 we were on the way down. If you follow the cycle, we should have had another up year this year, but conditions dictate what we end up with."

And what conditions are those?

"One is the condition of the hens going into the nesting season," said Horton. "This can dictate how many eggs they lay, how many of the hens do nest and how strong the chicks are.

"Some evidence coming out of an Appalachian grouse study showed that their hens were in a bit poorer condition than ours, so they were not as productive," continued Horton. "If the hens are using a lot of their fat reserves in winter, even though they survive, they won't be as productive this year, meaning fewer birds in the fall."

What caused the poor condition of the hens was the lack of snowfall that occurred in the grouse range.

"The lack of snow and the extended cold periods would be pretty hard on the grouse," said Horton. "There will be birds that die from exposure and some that couldn't escape from predators effectively. With no cover, the grouse get picked off by hawks and owls."

This statement made me wonder how much adverse weather is a factor when it comes down to nesting success. Horton answered that question.

"Weather is a factor to some degree, but grouse are pretty well adapted to what they face here in Minnesota. You would have to have some extreme conditions with extended cold periods with cold rain to really affect the survival of the young once they've hatched. But if the hens are in poor condition and they don't put a lot of energy into the eggs, the chicks don't have the benefit of as big a yolk sack, so it doesn't take as much adverse weather to be a detriment to the hatch."

It is also important for the birds that pull off a brood to have excellent habitat to raise their young in.

"Ideal brood-rearing habitat is young, dense hardwood forest," said Horton. "In the northland, that equates to aspen, very dense aspen between the ages of 5 and 20 years old. The hens will take the chicks into those stands and they will be safe from most predators. It's dense enough that hawks and owls can't fly through it to get to the grouse. Even foxes and fishers have a hard time catching up to a brood in this thick stuff.

"Down south you will find some aspen, but grouse have to rely on young oak and maple stands and other thickets," Horton continued. "It's these thickets that protect the birds. Even prickly ash will suffice."

I used to hunt the regions in the southeast section of Minnesota for grouse. Back in the '70s the grouse were worth hunting there. Even into the early '80s you could always find a few birds in the heavily wooded river-bottom regions. Then it was like someone threw the switch and hunting for ruffed grouse in the southeast section of our state took a rapid turn for the worse. I asked Horton what he thought happened.

"It's a combination of factors that came together that caused a decline in the grouse populations in the southeast corner of the state," he said. "In the last 25 years the forests have gotten older, and this area has become better turkey habitat. At the same time we saw predator levels change. Back in the '70s there were still effects from DDT, and just about every farmer had some chickens and every hawk was a chicken hawk, so there was some indiscriminate hawk killing. The hawk and owl populations were lower in the past than you would find them today.

"We did a lot of trapping back in the '70s and '80s," added Horton. "When I was in high school we were getting $25 to $35 for a raccoon, and every kid I went to school with was making some side money running a trapline or hunting with hounds at night.

"Not to mention the development that has been prevalent in the area in the past 25 years. There are a lot of people who are building homes in the forest. These people have a couple of cats they let outside to kill mice and they also kill grouse. Cats are a tremendous midlevel predator. In the past we had marginal escape cover, but we didn't have a lot of predators. Now we have even less escape cover and this whole host of predators. It's not a good situation when you're trying to maintain a decent population of grouse."

There is one factor that could have an impact on the grouse population in Minnesota that is beginning to get quite a lot of interest among the biologists who monitor bird numbers. That is the West Nile virus.

The West Nile virus is spread by mosquitoes and is seen as a potential catastrophe waiting to happen when it comes to bird populations. The virus has put a big dent in crow populations in the East, but it is pretty early yet to know how West Nile will impact the Minnesota grouse numbers.

"There have been reports of ruffed grouse dying from West Nile," said Horton. "It may not seem like a lot, but the birds are secretive - they hide in thick woods - and to find one just lying there dead is pretty rare. On top of that, everything eats grouse. So if the bird is sick, something will pick it off.

"I did get reports last year that hunters were coming across impaired birds that were skinny and lethargic," said Horton. "We could have a lot of birds get sick and die on us and we won't even know it. It's one of the things I'm keeping my eye on. This could really change everything regarding bird populations in this state."

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If it seems like all doom and gloom for grouse hunters in Minnesota this season, consider that you are fortunate to be hunting in a state where opportunities exist even when the conditions are tough.

"We are definitely the top state at this time for grouse hunting," related Horton. "When it comes to aspen, 80 percent of the aspen forests in the eastern United States are in the Great Lakes states. Fifty percent are in Minnesota. We do have an abundance of habitat relative to the rest of the ruffed grouse range. And the other states started harvesting their aspen earlier than we did. We didn't really develop a market for the Minnesota aspen until the 1980s and we've been using it very aggressively since then. So we have a lot of aspen in the prime age-class. We'll do all right for the near term, but these current changes in the way we manage forests could have a huge impact on our grouse populations 10 years down the road."

And why is forest habitat so important?

"You cannot stock grouse," Horton said. "You cannot raise them in captivity. It's not like pheasants and quail. It's all about the habitat. You put it there and the grouse will find it, and they'll come and do well. Aspen is the No. 1 tree when it comes to grouse. You'll get some grouse in conifer stands. You get some in hardwoods, but if you want good, high, huntable numbers of grouse, you have to manage aspen properly."

Horton says the grouse flourish in aspen groves, but not all aspen is optimal. Age plays a part.

"Once those stands get to be about 20 years old, they're too old," he said. "You find very few grouse in that old growth, unless you get that hazel brush that comes up under the trees. Grouse do like that hazel brush. There's a definite gap between 20 years of age and 35 years of age when you don't see a lot of grouse in aspen. They really like it until the trees are about as big around as your forearm."

Considering that the ruffed grouse is the primary upland game bird in Minnesota, you would think that forest management would cater to that species. After all, grouse hunters are a huge economic impact on sections of the state where good grouse populations are present.

"We're never going to have pheasants like South Dakota," said Horton. "We're never going to have ducks like North Dakota. We'll never have turkeys like Missouri. But we do have one thing that everyone else is envious of. That's our grouse hunting. People come from out East and say they would give anything to have grouse hunting like we have in Minnesota. They used to have it and they don't anymore because they've pretty much shut down logging in the East.

"The DNR is showing some interest in coming back to a way of thinking that it would be beneficial to maintain what is some of the best grouse hunting in the country," said Horton. "At the same time, there is some forestry planning that is calling for converting 15 to 20 percent of the aspen on the landscape to something else.

"The federal forest managers seem to be more interested in threatened and endangered species, so they aren't interested in quality grouse management or quality deer management," said Horton. "They're coming out with a forest plan for the Chippewa and Superior national forests. I can almost guarantee it will call for a lot less aspen, probably another 20 percent reduction. When I look at all the resource agencies out there I see almost all of them are calling for less aspen in the future."

This on top of the move away from clearcutting to harvest trees is definitely creating adverse conditions for the grouse in the long term.

"Forestry is constantly evolving," said Horton, "but what we've seen in the past five to eight years is the agencies moving away from the traditional clearcutting. Harvesters are leaving a lot of residual trees on site. Agencies are doing selective cutting of aspen, and thinning programs are popular. This is not how aspen is traditionally regenerated and does not create good grouse habitat. Anytime you leave shade behind in a stand, the number of young aspen suckers that come out of the ground will be much reduced.

"For the most part," Horton says, "this type of forestry program is due to the public's distaste for the visual effects of clearcuts. Some of the more strident environmental groups want to stop all harvesting, so agencies figure they can temper that attitude by steering clear of clearcutting. This means that harvesters are taking some of the aspen and leaving some.

"In the national forests the service is trying to do some conifer restoration in aspen stands," he continued. "The cutters take all but a few of the aspen and then they plant all conifers. The stands are then converted to pine forest. It isn't good for grouse, or deer, or bear, but it is pretty to look at. People like to see conifers."

But hunters like to see grouse. It's always a treat to take a long walk in the woods with the dog, high expectations that a grouse will flush and the gun will swing. The walk becomes a hunt when the shotgun kicks back when you pull the trigger and the dog fetches tomorrow's dinner. Who would hunt if the potential for success didn't exist?

This season many hunters will discover their hunts are just long walks in the woods. Grouse numbers will be down and hunting will be tough. Does that mean I won't travel to the state forests and federal lands to chase grouse? The answer is no, because I still feel that the potential to get a bird or two exists. I may have been disappointed with the hunting last season at certain times, but I still enjoyed every minute in the woods.

Horton's advice is to just hang in there as well.

"My take-home message is that you can't do anything about the cycle," he says. "The numbers will come back and grouse are the premier game bird in Minnesota. When the cycle is high, we take 1.3 million grouse and that is more than any other game in the state."

Fore more information on the Ruffed Grouse Society, visit their Web site, which is located at www.ruffedgrousesociety.org. Horton says the society is involved in direct habitat management projects. They raise money, like any other group, through fund-raising banquets and they turn that money around and use it for education and habitat work. The society has ruffed grouse management areas scattered across the state in cooperation with landowners, and what all of this means is more grouse for hunters. Sounds good to me.



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