Beltrami forest study targets ruffed grouse

A University of Minnesota graduate student and five wildlife technicians are combing the woodlands of the Red Lake Wildlife Management Area and Beltrami Island State Forest this spring listening and looking for ruffed grouse on their drumming logs.

Ruffed grouse
Male ruffed grouse make a distinct "drumming" sound by rapidly beating their wings. (North Dakota Game and Fish Department photo)
Contributed/North Dakota Game and Fish Department

A University of Minnesota graduate student and five wildlife technicians are combing the woodlands of the Red Lake Wildlife Management Area and Beltrami Island State Forest this spring listening and looking for ruffed grouse on their drumming logs.

The goal of the project is to learn more about the mix of forest types that hold the highest grouse densities.

According to Mike Larson, ruffed grouse research biologist for the Department of Natural Resources in Grand Rapids, Minn., young aspen that spring up after mature forests are logged traditionally provide the best habitat for ruffed grouse. But there's a movement, he said, to restore many state and national forests to their original condition, which often was dominated by conifer trees such as pine and fir.

"We have about the same amount of aspen on the landscape as always, but there's a lot less conifer, and especially old conifer, than there used to be," Larson said. "For various resource and conservation reasons, there's an interest in increasing that type" of habitat.

The question is what that will mean for ruffed grouse in the long-term.


The late Gordon Gullion, a renowned Minnesota researcher whose "Grouse of the North Shore" is widely considered the ruffed grouse bible, long maintained that conifers were detrimental to ruffed grouse because they provided cover for raptors and other predators. Later in his career, though, Gullion found high grouse densities in areas primarily made up of conifers, Larson said.

"That raised the question: What is the role of conifers?" Larson said.

The project now under way at Red Lake WMA aims to help answer that question.

Long days afield

As part of the project, the researchers are surveying a series of wooded transects, some dominated by aspen, others by conifers, to see which stands hold the highest grouse densities.

The goal, Larson said, is to walk each transect once a week during the eight-week survey, listening for the drumming sound male grouse make by rapidly beating their wings to attract a mate. Males set up on a fallen tree, or "drumming log," to advertise their territory.

"We hope to identify grouse within listening distance," Larson said. "When you hear drumming, sneak up to it and try to see the grouse on the log."

Heading up the study is Meadow Kouffeld, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. Kouffeld and the wildlife technicians working with her are staying at Norris Camp south of Roosevelt, Minn. Five days a week, Larson said, they're in the woods a half-hour before sunrise, which means rising at ghastly hours and spending eight- to 10-hour days afield, the time required to complete a transect.


DNR staff from the area wildlife office in Baudette, Minn., also is assisting with the study, Larson said.

Other questions

Based on smaller-scale U of M research at an experimental forest near Cloquet, Minn., Larson said there's evidence that grouse do best in areas with equal representation of different forest types such as aspen and conifers. The Cloquet forest does not have large areas dominated by aspen, though. He said Beltrami Forest is an ideal site for the research project now underway because it features large -- in some cases township-sized -- blocks of both aspen- and conifer-dominated forests. No other areas in Minnesota grouse country offer a mix on that scale, he said.

The other question, he said, is whether certain types of conifers are better for grouse. They might all be classified as conifers, Larson said, but pine, spruce and fir trees differ in their characteristics.

Larson said the DNR proposed the grouse project as a three-year study. That's contingent on funding, though, and money still is very much in question when the new fiscal year begins July 1, Larson said.

"We're hoping to get in at least one more season," he said.

Larson, who also serves as an adjunct faculty at the U of M, said he had a chance to spend some time in the woods with the research crew last week.

He liked what he saw -- and heard.


"I found quite a few birds on my transects," he said. "The woods are definitely alive with grouse drumming these days. Probably half the drumming logs, I was able to get within 20 yards or so and observe the grouse drumming on the log."

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to .

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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