Is Minnesota grouse hunting as good as it used to be? No. And it is unlikely to ever be that good again. This is what I learned from some longtime observers of Minnesota’s grouse woods after asking for reader input in a recent column. But Minnesota ruffed grouse hunting is still better than anywhere else in the Lower 48.
One retired state forester wrote: “Couldn’t agree more with grouse (ruffed) getting little respect in Minnesota. How often do you hear of overlimit cases, ever? Yet when I worked up north I guarantee you this was quite often the case.” The overlimits to which he refers are not necessarily shooting more than a daily bag limit of five, but also avid hunters who have more than their possession limit of 10 grouse in the freezer.
The forester goes on to say when he began hunting grouse in 1966 in the Nett Lake/Silverdale/Rauch areas, birds were abundant and hunters few. He later had good hunting near Brainerd during the mid 70s and around Northome and Washkish in the early 80s. He began seeing more hunters and the beginning of ATV use for hunting in the late 80s. He moved to Pequot Lakes in the late 90s and found few grouse.
A county forester near Park Rapids observes there are fewer grouse in that area, in spite of active forest management favoring aspen. He also wondered (as do others) if the northward invasion of wild turkeys is having a negative effect on grouse numbers. I posed that question to Rocky Gutierrez, the Gordon Gullion Endowed Chair Emeritus at the University of Minnesota. He replied:
“I have often heard people talk about this inverse relationship between turkeys and ruffed grouse, but to my knowledge there are no studies that evaluate competitive impacts of the invasive wild turkey on ruffed grouse. I tried to get people interested in doing such a study when I lived in Minnesota, but, as you know, ruffed grouse are low on the priority list of Minnesota DNR…Having said that, I am not surprised that these relationships might generally be true. One plausible explanation is that turkeys use older forest than ruffed grouse so as forests mature, they become less valuable to ruffed grouse and more valuable to turkeys. The only place they overlap in habitat use is brood rearing habitat, but still turkeys are more tolerant of open forests as escape cover than are ruffed grouse. General maturation of forest landscapes is generally bad for grouse.”
Another grouse expert, retired DNR biologist Bill Berg, also weighed in. He wrote a paper in 2011 titled Ruffed Grouse “Problems,” which he graciously shared with me. He points out that in the mid 20th Century, Minnesota hunter harvests reached 1.3 to 1.4 million birds during years when the ruffed grouse population was at the peak of its 10-year cycle. But Minnesota’s forests are no longer the same as they were back then. “Those were the days of large aspen clear cuts, no ATV’s and few forest roads, few or no gray wolves (meaning the coyote was the dominant forest predator), no fisher or marten, winters like ‘the good old days,’ relatively poor hunters (in terms of skill and quality dogs), and no known viral disease epidemics,” he wrote.
Berg then goes on to address the changes under the headings of Logging, Forest access, Changing face of predators, Climate change, Hunter quality and guides, and Disease. I found some of Berg’s astute observations surprising.
For instance, he says the return of the gray wolf to Minnesota’s forest caused a dramatic change in the composition of predator populations. Previously, coyotes were the dominant predator and they limited the numbers of the smaller red fox. Wolves outcompete coyotes in a similar manner. As forest coyote numbers diminished, the number of fox increased several fold. Successful restoration of pine marten and fisher populations adds two predators that were uncommon in the mid 20th Century. Milder winters have led to the northward expansion of bobcat, striped skunk and raccoon populations, as well as northward migration of formerly southern opossums and gray fox.
While we continue to harvest a substantial amount of aspen, a tree species considered the cornerstone of ruffed grouse habitat, logging practices have changed. Large clear cuts have been replaced with smaller harvests that include “leave trees;” individual trees or clumps of trees which are habitat for many species, but also provide perches for raptors and cover for predators. To my knowledge, no one in Minnesota has done any research into how changes in forest management have affected game species such as ruffed grouse, moose and white-tailed deer.
As for climate change, Berg says this: “All climatological data point to milder winters, hotter summers, and weather extremes. When I hunted with my Dad and Uncle for ruffed grouse, we drove from the Twin Cities to southeast Minnesota for a ruffed grouse ground-swatting bonanza. Back then, by far the highest drumming counts were in the Southeast. Today, they are by far the lowest, due in part to the decline of aspen, but also, to hotter summers and wet or crusted snow in winter. The same thing has happened in southern Wisconsin and Michigan. Years ago Minnesota sent a couple hundred ruffed grouse to Missouri and they prospered to support a limited season, but now both the season and the grouse are gone…Ruffed grouse are declining in the southern Appalachians, but are increasing in the central Canadian provinces, where these grouse are partaking in milder winters.”
West Nile Virus may affect grouse numbers, but little data is available. Berg reports about 10 years ago roughly 20 percent of the grouse and woodcock tested at the Ruffed Grouse Society’s National Hunt in Grand Rapids tested positive for West Nile. Last but not least, Berg believes that grouse hunters, while fewer in number, are better than they used to be. Ruffed grouse guides are now available. Many hunters have trained dogs, not to mention access to Google Earth and GPS. In addition, the widespread use of ATVs allows hunters to easily reach places that once required a long walk.
Berg’s doesn’t believe the good old days of grouse hunting will return, but he isn’t pessimistic about the present. He writes: “I am not against present day forest management guidelines, diverse predator species that are abundant in number, good hunters with good dogs, guides, or technology. I must admit a dislike for the widespread and almost uncontrolled use of ATV’s, and a concern for how climate change and grouse diseases and forest tree parasites appear to be changing our forest ecosystems.” I suspect many grouse hunters share his point of view.