Minnesota Ruffed Grouse Preview: Headed in the right direction

If you're a wildlife biologist who gets put on the spot to make hunting predictions every year about this time, you could do worse than be in Mike Larson's shoes this fall.

If you're a wildlife biologist who gets put on the spot to make hunting predictions every year about this time, you could do worse than be in Mike Larson's shoes this fall.

Wildlife research biologist for the Department of Natural Resources in Grand Rapids, Minn., Larson is the go-to guy for statewide grouse prognostications.

And this year, there's definitely nothing to grouse about. Minnesota's ruffed grouse numbers are up 30 percent statewide from last year, based on spring drumming count surveys. Male grouse make the drumming sound by rapidly beating their wings in an effort to attract a mate.

The spring count bodes well for hunters planning to hit the woods when Minnesota's season for ruffs and other upland game species begins Saturday.

"There's noticeably more birds on the landscape," Larson said.


On the climb

Ruffed grouse populations follow a predictable, well-documented cycle of boom-and-bust. Every decade, the population reaches a peak and then begins a few years of gradual decline before bottoming out and building toward another peak.

Across most of Minnesota's grouse range, populations hit bottom in 2003 or 2004. They began an upswing in 2005, which continued last year and is even more evident this year.

Even so, the peak appears to be a couple of years down the road, Larson says.

"Once the population starts to increase from the low end of the cycle, in the last four or five cycles, we've never had fewer than four years of increase," he said. "So if this is the second to third year, there's still better years ahead.

"We're not going to peak until at least 2009."

According to Larson, the uptick in grouse populations also is reflected in hunter success. Two years ago, Minnesota hunters shot 224,000 ruffed grouse, a tally that climbed to 417,000 in 2006.

Minnesota frequently leads the nation in ruffed grouse success. According to DNR statistics, on average, 115,000 hunters shoot 545,000 ruffs each year. During peak years, that number can exceed 1 million birds.


Why the ruffed grouse population cycle acts so predictably is something biologists still don't completely understand, Larson says.

"It's a process we don't have figured out by any means," he said. "It's a complex issue, and it's unlikely that there's one simple explanation for what causes the cycle."

Brood success

There's been concern that heavy June rains in some parts of northern Minnesota - especially the northwest - might have hampered brood success. That might be an issue in localized areas, Larson says, but certainly not on a large scale.

"I think range-wide, brood-rearing conditions probably have been fair to average," Larson said. "The thing with ruffed grouse populations is, the cycle dominates everything. Now that we're in an upswing, the continued increase in population does not seem to be dependent on spring weather."

That's also reflected in a handful of anecdotal reports Larson has received from people seeing grouse broods - a rare occurrence in recent summers. The DNR doesn't do a formal survey of brood success.

Scott Laudenslager, assistant manager of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area south of Roosevelt, Minn., said he's seen a few broods and expects hunters will encounter a "decent number" of birds this fall.

Red Lake WMA and Beltrami Island State Forest are among the most popular grouse haunts for hunters in northwestern Minnesota.


Northwest question

Still, there are a few question marks going into Saturday's opener. In the DNR's northwestern grouse region, spring drumming counts actually declined slightly, from one drum per stop in 2006 to 0.9 drums per stop this year. That compares with the statewide average of 1.3 drums per stop and 1.5 drums per stop in the northeast, the heart of Minnesota's grouse range.

So what does that mean for hunters in the northwest? Maybe nothing, Larson says.

The DNR revamped its grouse regions a couple of years ago to better reflect habitat types and long-term population trends. The northwest now is limited to a handful of counties on the western fringe of grouse range, where it used to be the entire northwest quarter of the state.

With fewer survey routes, the data might just be less reliable, Larson says.

"The point of the matter is we didn't gather enough (information) to be able to tell one way or the other," Larson said of northwest drumming counts. "It could very well be the population over that entire region or zone did increase a bit along with this upswing in the cycle, and our surveys just didn't detect that.

"It's certainly within the realm of possibility."

Wherever hunters find ruffed grouse, there's a lot to like about the bird.


"Aside from working with the dogs and being in the woods in the fall, they're a challenging game bird," Larson said. "And they occur in great areas of landscape in terms of just hiking through a grouse woods in the fall.

"The grouse is definitely the king of forest game birds."

Close your eyes and take a deep breath. You can almost smell the decaying leaves . . . the smell of the woods, and ruffed grouse season.

It won't be long now.

Reach Dokken at 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 148, or .

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