By Tom Dickson
Just as birders dream of a midwinter trip to Costa Rica, and trout anglers pine for Montana rivers, ruffed grouse hunters across the United States fantasize about spending an October weekend in northern Minnesota.
Dan Dessecker, senior biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society, a national conservation organization based in Pennsylvania, says that a ruffed grouse hunter in West Virginia or Ohio—where the sport is revered—is happy to flush 10 partridge (as the birds are also called) in a day.
"But in Minnesota during the good years, you can have up to 40 or sometimes even 50 flushes per day," he says. "That's just unheard of anywhere else in the country. When you add that to all your public forest land, Minnesota really is the nation's best ruffed grouse state."
Minnesota ranks among the top three states in total harvest—regularly alternating with Wisconsin and Michigan for the number one spot. And because those states have far more grouse hunters than Minnesota does, the five to 10 birds annually harvested per hunter here is unequaled.
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On average, 115,000 hunters harvest 545,000 ruffed grouse in Minnesota each year, making it the state's number one bird in the bag. During peak years, such as those in the early 1970s and early 1990s, hunters harvested more than 1 million ruffed grouse each fall.
This past spring's drumming counts indicate the state's grouse population could be emerging from its cyclical slump. Some hunters worry that new state and federal forest management plans could prevent grouse numbers from reaching previous peaks in Minnesota. But the Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Forest Service say these plans will bring a better balance to Minnesota forests while supporting the state's grouse population.
Named for the ruff of feathers around its neck, most visible when the bird is nervous or courting, the fan-tailed ruffed grouse sports handsomely camouflaged plumage of browns, blacks, grays, and russets. The chicken-sized bird is easy to clean because the breast separates easily from the rest of the body. It has white, delicately flavored meat.
Grouse hunting's greatest appeal is the challenge of shooting the zippy birds, which often hang out in dense, prickly thickets and flush explosively without warning.
"In partridge hunting there is no letdown," wrote the great Wisconsin outdoors writer Gordon MacQuarrie. "You plow through brush, and unless your eyes and ears are on the all-out qui vive a phantom fantail will roar out of thorny cover and leave you standing there like the man who missed the last train home."
To find and count grouse, DNR biologists have relied on annual spring drumming surveys since 1949. Throughout the year, but primarily during mating season, a male ruffed grouse will stand on a downed "drumming log" and beat its wings rapidly in five- to eight-seconds intervals. The drumming, which sounds a bit like a well-muffled lawn mower starting up, is meant to attract females and warn other males to stay away. DNR biologists and volunteers from more than a dozen cooperating state and federal agencies, Indian tribes, colleges, and a timber company drive along roughly 128 prescribed routes and count the number of drums heard per four-minute stop.
Though also found in oak, maple, and other woods, ruffed grouse in Minnesota prefer aspen (also called popple). Grouse population densities are likely to be greatest in aspen forests of mixed ages. "Young aspen, 10 to 15 years old, with silver-dollar-sized trunks, are particularly important for protecting ruffed grouse from owls and goshawks," Dessecker says. "The birds hang out there in spring, summer, and fall, eating succulent forbs and insects, protected from raptors." When snow covers those foods, grouse move into stands of older aspen, where they feed on the trees' flower buds, especially larger buds of male aspen. "Aspen twigs are stouter than those of other trees," he says, "so grouse can sit safe from ground predators and feed on the flower buds throughout the winter."
Minnesota is awash in aspen and other grouse habitat, much of it in county, state, and national forests. In fact, Minnesota has more grouse habitat than any other state. According to the DNR's ruffed grouse management plan draft, 11.5 million of the state's 16.3 million acres of forest are grouse habitat.
That amount of aspen—particularly young popples—may diminish during the next half century, which concerns Dessecker and some Minnesota grouse hunters.
Unlike most other hardwoods, aspen is a pioneer species that thrives after clear-cutting. When a tree dies from logging or fire, suckers sprout from the aspen's dense root systems. For decades, foresters considered aspen a "weed tree." But since the mid-1980s, a booming market for aspen-based paper and particleboard has greatly increased harvest—and thus led to young aspen stands popping up across the landscape.
From 1980 to 2000, according to the DNR, the forest acreage covered with small-diameter trees (mostly aspen, birch, and balsam-poplar cover types) increased 42 percent to 4.4 million acres. By 2002 Minnesota had nearly 1 million acres of aspen younger than 10 years old.
That indicates a forest out of balance, says Jim Sanders, supervisor of Superior National Forest. He points out that a lack of older trees compromises a forest's ecological health and robs some wildlife species of vital habitat. The U.S. Forest Service's most recent forest management plans for Superior and Chippewa national forests call for less aspen overall, more conifers, and older forests.
"We'll continue to manage for aspen, and we'll still have a lot of early successional aspen," says Sanders, "but our new plan will create more habitat diversity for wildlife species in addition to grouse and deer."
The DNR's new North Shore forest management plan also calls for less aspen overall while maintaining some older aspen.
"If all you have is young aspen, then the critical winter food source for grouse—older male aspen flower buds—will be absent," says DNR forest ecologist Kurt Rusterholz, who hunts grouse on occasion. What's more, he says, old and standing dead aspen provide nesting sites for mergansers, woodpeckers, boreal owls, and other wildlife species that don't do well in young forests.
Rusterholz notes that the proportion of aspen in Minnesota forests is approximately three times that of pre-European settlement forest. "The DNR's plan is not to go back to that presettlement level, but just to move a bit more in that direction," Rusterholz says. Under that North Shore plan, he says, aspen cover types would be reduced by roughly 20 percent during the next 50 years.
The Ruffed Grouse Society has opposed the DNR and national forest management plans. "If you want grouse, you need to continue providing young forests or grouse numbers will decline," says Dessecker.
Dessecker says that nationally, ruffed grouse advocates are pinning their hopes on Minnesota. In eastern states, decades of fire suppression and public disdain for clear- cuts have caused oak and maple woods to age beyond what's best for grouse. "The only places left with abundant young forest are the Great Lakes states, particularly Minnesota," Dessecker says. "There seems to be a bias against them these days, but young forests need love too."
Though aspen on state lands may decrease, DNR officials insist they won't let grouse numbers decline. In fact, the department established a strategic conservation agenda in 2004 that set an ambitious annual ruffed grouse harvest target of 650,000—nearly 20 percent above the current average.
To accomplish that goal, wildlife managers will work even more closely with forest managers to find ways for timber harvest to benefit grouse habitat, according to DNR grouse research biologist Mike Larson.
"You can have less aspen on the landscape and still improve grouse habitat if you manage for the right mix of aspen age classes and the position of aspen stands with stands of other tree types," says Larson. Spruce and other conifers, for example, can provide important thermal cover for grouse in winter, he says. Conifers become especially critical during winters when there's little or no snow for grouse to dive into for refuge from the cold. "It doesn't always need to come down to aspen versus all other species," Larson says.
Steve Merchant, DNR forest wildlife program coordinator, says grouse devotees should also bear in mind that even if aspen harvest decreases slightly on public lands, it's increasing on private and county forests due to strong markets for aspen. "The timber industry is still making grouse habitat like crazy," he says. "We have so much early successional habitat right now it's unbelievable."
Merchant, who hunts grouse and woodcock with his English setter, suggests a way for hunters to view the DNR approach to grouse management: The DNR is looking at the long-term habitat supply for all forest wildlife.
"The department is responsible for more than just ruffed grouse in forests," Merchant says. "But over the long haul, our commitment to managing forests sustainably will benefit grouse because we're working to ensure the overall health of the forest, so that it can continue producing all species of wildlife, year after year, decade after decade."
Dessecker says his organization also is looking out for the long-term interests of ruffed grouse by creating conservation advocates for the bird and its forest habitat.
"Grouse hunting can be an easy way to introduce young people to hunting, a way to get kids away from TVs and video games and into the outdoors," he says. "Young grouse hunters are our future conservationists, the people down the road who will be working to support forest conservation."
Those young hunters will likely find partridge aplenty. Not only does Minnesota now contain more grouse habitat than at any time in recent history, but the state's grouse population is also emerging from the depths of its 10-year cycle.
After this next peak, grouse numbers will decline, then rise again as they do every decade. And grouse hunters will continue to find pleasure in the same sweet simplicity MacQuarrie described as he set out to shoot partridge one late October afternoon decades ago: "No hunting jacket on that clear, warm day. Not even a sleeveless game carrier. Just shells in the pockets, a fat ham sandwich, and Bailey Sweet apples stuck into odd corners."
Tom Dickson, who learned to hunt ruffed grouse near Mora, is a writer in Helena, Mont.