Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North: Did we used to have more grouse?

The waning of summer means different things. For some folks, it’s all about starting the slow, cold trudge to the depths of winter.  For others, it’s the kick-off to fall hunting seasons. Dove, bear and goose hunters are already afield. I’m waiting until the middle of the month, when grouse season begins.

Even though I’ll have an eager young dog and a veteran Lab working the coverts, I’m not particularly excited about the hunting prospects. My hunting area is the easternmost location in Minnesota. The famous 10-year ruffed grouse population cycle runs across the state from west to east. That means where I hunt is the last place to recover from the low point in the cycle.

Minnesota DNR officials say the grouse population is beginning the upswing from the cyclic low. Spring drumming counts across the northern portion of the state showed significant increases over 2015 numbers. This may mean hunters will find more grouse in the woods this autumn; or maybe not. The month of June was very wet across much if not all of the northern ruffed grouse range. The rains may have laid waste to newly hatched grouse chicks. If so, there will be fewer young birds in the fall population.

In my experience, grouse hunting was so-so in 2015. It was possible the population hadn’t reached the absolute low point. In a lifetime of grouse hunting, I can recall three or four grim years where you could walk for miles without flushing a grouse. On the flip side, I also remember some wondrous years where you flushed a grouse around every turn in the trail. The most recent one was about five years ago.

Most years, I expect to flush a bird or two for every mile I walk during the course of a hunt. Some days are better than others. And you’ll encounter more birds within an hour or two of sunset, because they are more active at that time of day. Early in the season, before the broods scatter, you may encounter coveys of up to a dozen grouse, although a half dozen is more likely. Occasionally in December, I’ve stumbled upon large coveys when the birds are congregated at food source such mountain ash berries. Once, while hunting with my father as a kid, we flushed over 20 grouse from one place. That’s far and away the biggest covey I’ve seen.

The coveys I encounter this fall will likely be few and far between. In my ramblings through the woods since late last winter, I’ve seen few grouse. Drumming activity was mostly mediocre last spring. At any rate, it is best to go hunting with low expectations and be pleasantly surprised to flush a few more birds than the opposite.

As a walker, finding places to hunt is easy. Along the North Shore, most grouse are killed by hunters using vehicles or ATVs. Get off the beaten path and you pretty much have the grouse woods to yourself. Getting around out there won’t be easy. Heavy, wet snow last winter damaged boughs and brush, while summer windstorms toppled trees. A friend who followed a hiking route off the Gunflint Trail recently said he encountered large swaths of blowdown that he had to find a way around.

On a positive note, there is plenty of grouse habitat to explore. Areas logged during the 1990s and early 2000s are now prime for grouse. But it won’t be long before the timber harvest downturn of the last decade becomes noticeable to hunters seeking young forest cover. In some areas of the state, it may be noticeable now.

During the three decades I’ve been hunting grouse nearly exclusively in Cook County, the population has seemed stable over time. The biggest change I’ve noticed is that some of my favorite places 20 years ago hold far fewer birds today. This is because the forest cover in those places has grown older. Now I have new hotspots. During the same period of time, hunting pressure seems to have declined, though not everyone agrees with my observation. Sure, you’ll see lots of weekend road-hunters early in the season and when fall colors are at their peak, but most other times it’s quiet out there. The biggest change I’ve noticed is that vehicles with hunters are often outnumbered by people who own homes and cabins in the woods or contractors building more of the same. The backwoods used to be far less populated.

When I talk with grouse hunters from other areas of northern Minnesota, they often tell a different story. They say grouse seem to be fewer in number than they used to be, even during the good years. Some speculate this is due to the proliferation of hunters using ATVs. Others wonder if it related to the invasion of non-native wild turkeys in the north woods and still others say they aren’t sure why grouse have declined. If Minnesota does indeed support fewer grouse than it once did, I lean toward the third explanation. Who knows why?

It’s not likely an issue of hunting pressure. While the ruffed grouse remains the state’s most popular game bird, hunting participation has declined over time. When I was growing up, grouse were the gateway into hunting for children. This is no longer the case. Today, many children have their initial hunting experiences in the deer woods.  Also, while Minnesota remains the top grouse hunting state in the nation, the statewide harvest seems to have declined. This may be a result of less hunting pressure rather than fewer grouse.

It is safe to say that Minnesota lacks definitive information about the ruffed grouse population. When it comes to game birds, the DNR has an institutional bias toward pheasants and ducks. Ruffed grouse are largely taken for granted. Let’s face it: We haven’t had a Ruffed Grouse Summit or a Governor’s Grouse Opener.

I remain curious, though, about the perceptions that other longtime grouse hunters, foresters and others who spend time in the woods have about our ruffed grouse population. If you have some thoughts on the subject, please drop me a line at Minnesota Outdoor News.

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