Ruffed grouse reign over all sporting birds, not only because they are a challenge to hunt, whether over the point of an English setter or the flush of a springer spaniel, but because, to the appreciative eye, they are artwork in motion, a palette of colors come to life, with wings.
“Ol’ Ruff” is also a mysterious bird, and one whose future abundance in Minnesota isn’t guaranteed, a reminder of which surfaced last week with the disappointing results from the Ruffed Grouse Society’s annual National Grouse and Woodcock Hunt, headquartered in Grand Rapids.
While scattering into the woods of Itasca and neighboring counties, the hunt’s 108 wing shooters were upbeat. With good reason: Minnesota has become the holy grail for ruffed grouse hunters, nationwide.
Buoying expectations among uplanders this fall, the state’s Department of Natural Resources reported that ruffed grouse drumming counts last spring were an unprecedented 57 percent higher than a year ago.
Word of the uptick spread far, wide and quickly among grouse cognoscenti, evidenced by the pickups and SUVs bearing license plates from Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Tennessee and other states that have visited northern Minnesota this fall.
Loaded with dogs, double guns and maps, and piloted by blaze-orange-clad woods hunters, these vehicles manifest not only Minnesota’s superiority as a grouse hunting destination, but — importantly for contextual reasons — the surrender of other states’ forests as fertile grouse incubators.
What’s more, and importantly, Minnesota is not immune to the types of timber-industry, demographic and sociological pressures that have contributed to forest-wildlife declines elsewhere, especially in light of the generalized absence of wildfires in ruffed grouse country, and the absence also of the early successional timber growth those fires promote.
Years ago, I’d lie awake at night reading books penned by old George Bird Evans, the prolific West Virginia grouse and setter hunter and writer. I had an English setter at the time, a little Browning side-by-side and a good pair of boots. Therefore, I too was a grouse hunter. And, enamored as I was of tromping Minnesota’s woods in autumn for these birds, I became, over time, intrigued also about the “old world” of grouse hunting that Evans wrote about out East. So, one October in the late 1980s I headed to Maine and, farther north still, to New Brunswick, to check out bird hunting there for myself.
Here’s my trip report in a sentence: New England might enchant some people, but didn’t me, because its woods were old and lacked the species and age diversification necessary to propagate abundant and varied forest wildlife.
Return now to the recently concluded National Grouse and Woodcock Hunt.
Not only were participating hunters’ ruffed grouse harvests not reflective of the 57 percent drumming-count increase reported by the DNR this spring, the hunt’s kill represented an all-time low.
To wit: The 124 grouse killed during the two-day hunt amounted to a 30 percent reduction from a year ago. The take was 50 percent below the hunt’s average harvest — and the hunt has been continuous for nearly 40 years.
Fortunately, grouse and woodcock have many smart, dedicated advocates in Minnesota, among them Ted Dick, DNR forest game-bird coordinator, and Meadow Kouffeld, regional biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society.
“The good news in Minnesota is that we have an active timber industry and that there is timber cutting occurring here,” Kouffeld said. “Back east, the human population densities are much higher in forested areas than Minnesota’s are, and there’s also considerable negativity back East toward timber harvesting. We generally haven’t had those here.”
But what Minnesota also hasn’t had, Kouffeld said, is a sufficient emphasis on forest management for wildlife.
“Many of our forest habitats are degraded,” Kouffeld said. “We need to treat our forests just like we do our endangered wetlands and manage them intensively.”
No one is certain whether the DNR drumming counts this spring were in error; whether disease or other factors prevented chicks from being produced; or whether something killed chicks after they hatched.
But everyone is certain that the future of Minnesota’s forests and the future of the state’s ruffed grouse are intertwined. And some news on that front isn’t good.
“On the Chippewa National Forest, for example,” Dick said, “the amount of aspen younger than 20 years old, which is crucial for grouse and woodcock, has declined by 65,000 acres, due to federal cutting policies.”
Important now for Minnesota ruffed grouse and other forest wildlife is the outcome of a DNR study intended to determine whether timber cuttings on state lands can, or should, increase from 800,000 cords annually to 1 million cords.
Unknown is whether such an increase can be sustained, given its possible effects on timber supplies, water quality, wildlife and other forest components.
Commercial foresters want the additional stumpage in part because private landowners aren’t offering their timber as readily as they once did, and in part because turning a profit in the timber industry is challenging.
Would an additional 200,000 cords of timber cutting on state land be good, bad or indifferent for grouse and other wildlife?
“That’s a challenging question,” said Leslie McInenly, who is on temporary leave from her post as DNR forest habitat team supervisor. “Especially when considered with what’s happening on private, county and national forests. Timber harvests on those lands all work together, and wildlife is affected by all of it.”
The future of Minnesota’s forest resources might depend on it.