Grouse counts, observations at odds
By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune, Pine Journal
Only one question remains about Minnesota’s ruffed grouse season this fall.
Is it for real?
Minnesota grouse hunters have been waiting for a substantial increase in grouse numbers for several years. Finally, this past spring’s drumming counts foretold a breakthrough season this fall.
Drumming counts were up 44 percent across Northeastern Minnesota and 117 percent in Northwestern Minnesota.
“The drumming count last spring was higher than anything we’ve seen in the last 30 to 40 years,” said Mike Larson, grouse biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources at Grand Rapids.
Minnesota’s grouse season opens Saturday. Wisconsin’s grouse season opened yesterday.
If Minnesota hunters are — pardon the expression — a little gun-shy about grouse projections, they have some reason to be. In 2007, a modest increase in drumming counts suggested an improved fall harvest. But the number of birds taken by hunters that fall actually dropped for unknown reasons.
Larson, though, believes hunters will find grouse when they get to the woods.
“I did hear a fair bit from the field early in the brood-rearing season,” Larson said. “People are still talking about seeing grouse and seeing relatively large broods. I’m hearing a lot more happy, positive stories.”
The number of drumming male ruffed grouse at the University of Minnesota’s Cloquet Forestry Center nearly doubled this year over last year, from 65 to 111, said Lorelle Berkeley, leader of the university’s ruffed grouse project.
“We’re flushing lots of coveys of grouse,” she said. “It seems like it’s going to be a great year for hunting.”
Not everyone offers such glowing reports, though.
Randy Roff, a St. Louis County forester in the Brimson area, said he has seen “average to below average numbers of birds in good cover.” In his informal survey of other foresters working the Brimson and Island Lake areas north of Duluth, none has seen lots of birds. One reported seeing some coveys of six or more birds, but not many coveys.
Jeff Jackson, a DNR forester at Deer River, echoed those comments.
“This summer and spring I feel like I’ve heard and seen less,” Jackson said. “I haven’t kicked up as many as I have in the past, and I’ve been in prime grouse cover. You’re kickin’ them up here and there, but in past good years, I’d have kicked up three or four times as many.”
Jeff Lightfoot, DNR regional wildlife manager at Grand Rapids, has heard some similar reports.
“I think a lot of us are keeping our fingers crossed and holding our breath. We’ll know in a week or two,” Lightfoot said. “The incidental things I’ve heard is that people aren’t bumping into birds all over the place like you might expect.”
Last fall, Minnesota hunters shot an estimated 318,000 ruffed grouse, up from 294,000 in 2007. In years near the peaks of the ruffed grouse cycle, hunters usually shoot about a million birds.
“Two- or three-hundred thousand isn’t far up that scale,” Larson said. “If the harvest this year is similar to when the drumming counts were as high as the last peaks, we’d harvest a million birds. If we go from 300,000 to a million, that would be the largest increase in harvest ever.”
Ultimately, that harvest will depend partly on the number of birds in the woods, but also on the number of hunters who go afield.
The estimated number of grouse hunters has decreased the past two years and has hovered around 90,000, down from 120,000 to 140,000 in the mid- to late 1990s.
Wisconsin hunt under way
Ruffed grouse season opened Saturday in Wisconsin. Spring drumming counts in northern Wisconsin were up just 6 percent from last year. Biologists had been hoping for a much greater increase, as the grouse population climbs toward the peak of its 10-year cycle. Wisconsin’s grouse population bottomed out in 2005 and has risen each year since.
“Just subjectively, based on what I personally see, brood production should be good this year, much better than last year,” said Greg Kessler, DNR area wildlife manager at Brule. “Things should be looking up this fall. With timely summer rains, the food situation is good. The berry crops are fair to good.”