Minnesota’s ruffed grouse hunters could find more birds in the woods this fall.
If they do, it will be a sign that the ruffie population — which fluctuates on a 10-year boom-to-bust cycle — is on the upswing after bottoming out in 2013.
“I’m hoping we’re heading back up,” said Ted Dick, Department of Natural Resources forest game bird coordinator.
Though this spring’s ruffed grouse drumming counts, announced last week, were unchanged from last year, there are reasons to expect more birds this fall. The spring count only estimates the adult grouse population and doesn’t reflect the reproduction that occurs later.
Last spring’s drumming counts were up 34 percent from 2013, but officials believe lousy weather resulted in poor reproduction, which would explain why this year’s drumming counts are nearly identical to last year’s.
“We had a really cold, wet spring last year, and that usually hurts hatching and survival of young,” said Charlotte Roy, DNR grouse project leader.
Said Dick: “The spring survey is one thing, but a lot of fall hunting success depends on weather just after the chicks hatch. And the weather’s been much better this year.
“I flushed a brood with at least eight chicks last week, and they were big. I’d say reproduction looks good so far.”
Grouse hunters could use some good news. The number of ruffie hunters generally tracks the grouse population, declining when bird numbers fall and increasing when bird numbers rebound in the mysterious cycle.
In 2013, when the grouse population likely hit bottom, the DNR estimated that about 81,000 hunters sought ruffed grouse, the lowest in eight years. Likewise, the grouse harvest hit an eight-year low, too.
Hunter numbers and harvest estimates from 2014 aren’t available yet, but Dick expects both to show improvements.
“The majority of hunters I talked to had a better season last year than the year before,” he said.
For the survey, officials count the number of drumming grouse they hear at “stops” along 126 established routes throughout the state’s forested regions. In the northeast — the core of grouse range — the counts were 1.3 drums per stop; in the northwest, it was 1.0; in the central hardwoods, 0.7, and in the southeast, 0.4.
The statewide average was 1.1 drums per stop. In 2009, the last peak in the population cycle, the average was 2.0 — a 37-year-high.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s ruffed grouse population also appears to be similar to last year’s, but officials there believe the population has hit the low point in the cycle.
“We should start to see increases in the next few years as the grouse population moves toward the next peak,” survey coordinator Brian Dhuey said.