Fish & Wildlife Today: Fall 1997: Minnesota: The House of Grouse COPY

DNR Division of Fish and Wildlife - Fall 1997

Minnesota: The house of grouse

Our state provides ruffed grouse shooting that hunters in other states only dream about

During a high-population year, such as 1997, a Minnesota hunter can flush up to 40 ruffed grouse on a good day. During an excellent year in other ruffed grouse states such as Vermont or Virginia, hunters are thrilled, during a day of hunting, to see even 10 birds.

"Many Minnesota grouse hunters don't know just how good they've got it," says Dan Dessecker, forest wildlife biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society, a national conservation group.

Minnesota is to ruffed grouse what Montana is to elk and North Dakota is toA hunter in a tree. ducks. Hunters shoot more of these woodland birds in Minnesota than in any other state. Yet according to Dessecker, Minnesota has fewer grouse hunters (roughly 140,000) compared to other high-harvest states such as Wisconsin (150,000) and Michigan (200,000). That means more flushes and more birds bagged per hunter in Minnesota. Toss in more public grouse hunting woods here than in any other state, and it's no wonder that Ken Szabo, editor of Grouse Tales newsletter in Cleveland, Ohio, is headed to Minnesota this fall.

"We're predicting Minnesota as the nation's number one spot for grouse this year," says Szabo, a member of the Loyal Order of Dedicated Grouse Hunters. "Usually I just come out there for pheasants, but this year I'm adding a trip to northern Minnesota to my itinerary."

Why is Minnesota so great for grouse? Bill Berg, a DNR research biologist at Grand Rapids and an avid grouse hunter, explains that grouse appear to be nearing the peak of their natural 10-year population cycle. Moreover, the past two winters, while tough on deer and pheasants, were excellent for grouse, which hide from predators in deep snow. Another big factor has been extensive logging of mature aspen stands. The young aspen that shoots up after logging provides ideal grouse habitat.

Though nature does the most to hurt or help ruffed grouse populations, the DNR has had a big role in providing as many hunting opportunities as possible. In particular, research on ruffed grouse biology, habitat needs, and population trends has provided information allowing the DNR to provide longer grouse hunting seasons and more hunting opportunities?all without harming the state's ruffed grouse population. For example, Minnesota's ruffed grouse hunting season lasted just eight days back in 1939, but a hunter in 1997 can pursue ruffed grouse from September 12 through December 31?a total of 111 days.

And all this hunting isn't hurting ruffed grouse populations one bit. Minnesota's grouse population today is probably higher than even before European settlement.

The DNR can provide such a wealth of hunting opportunity because its scientists understand the effects of hunting on grouse numbers. It wasn't always so. During the first half of the 20th century, wildlife workers poorly understood the rise and fall of animal populations, such as the decade-long cycle of ruffed grouse numbers.

They knew even less about how hunting affected population changes. Responding to periodic declines, wildlife managers tried to stockpile grouse from one year to the next by shortening or even closing seasons. For example, the grouse hunting season was shut down from 1944 through 1947 in an attempt to rebuild a dwindling population.

But thanks to hunting harvest surveys, DNR research, and studies by scientists such as the late Gordon Gullion, wildlife managers now know that most grouse live an average of only one year, and that hunting has little effect on their population. "Ruffed grouse are an annually renewable resource," says Berg, who has coordinated Minnesota's ruffed grouse drumming count survey since 1974.

In addition to keeping tabs on grouse populations, DNR habitat specialists have worked to improve grouse habitat. Over the past 30 years, as the demand for aspen forest products has grown, Minnesota's timber industry has steadily increased its harvest of aspen, thus producing many of the younger stands that turn into prime grouse habitat.

DNR wildlife managers have teamed up with DNR and county foresters, as well as with conservation groups such as the Ruffed Grouse Society, to find innovative ways for aspen logging to increase habitat for grouse and other wildlife. For example, some timber harvests now leave small groups of mature aspen trees that provide the buds needed in the winter by grouse and other animals.

Even without this work, grouse numbers would still rise as a result of their mysterious population cycle. But with additional habitat from logging, more birds exist within that cycle. And thanks to careful population monitoring, the DNR can give hunters more than three full months to pursue these elegant woodland fliers.