MARCELL, MINN. - Her dog locked on point, Meadow Kouffeld-Hansen crept down the wooded ravine, 20-gauge in hand, hoping for a shot at the ruffed grouse holding still on the forest floor.
Finally unnerved, the bird rocketed in a blur of feathers across a ridge peppered with aspen, offering a decent shot.
Kouffeld-Hansen didn’t fire.
“I wasn’t sure where you were,’’ she said. Armed with only a camera, I had lingered farther back. Call it a missed opportunity — a common occurrence for grouse hunters.
No matter. Kouffeld-Hansen’s 3-year-old Deutsch Drahthaar, Meine, performed beautifully.
“That’s what I live for,’’ she said. “That was nice.’’
That she found a grouse and a half dozen woodcock during a short morning hunt last Saturday was not surprising. She knows where to find them. She holds a master’s degree in wildlife ecology and management, earned while studying ruffed grouse and their habitat in northern Minnesota for 2½ years, working under renowned grouse biologist Rocky Gutiérrez of the University of Minnesota.
She works at the Department of Natural Resources in Grand Rapids as a specialist managing contracts for habitat work in the eastern half of Minnesota, from Ontario to Iowa.
She’s been hunting and fishing since she was a kid growing up on a small ranch in northern California.
“My sister and I grew up bear hunting and shooting hogs and deer,’’ she said.
She later picked up bird hunting. These days, living near Marcell in northern Minnesota with her husband, a DNR conservation officer, and their 18-month-old daughter, she hunts upland birds and waterfowl with a pair of Draghthaars, Meine and Scoter, which she trained.
The 31-year-old also fills a niche in the hunting community much coveted by state officials: a young woman. Females made up just 12 percent of the state’s hunters last year, a percentage that has edged upward in recent years, prompted by efforts such as the DNR’s Becoming an Outdoors Woman program.
With the percentage of hunters in the general population declining, wildlife officials are hoping females — for years a mostly untapped demographic — can help fill the gap.
Kouffeld-Hansen, who teaches firearms safety training, is optimistic they will.
“I’m greatly encouraged by the numbers of young ladies showing up at the hunter safety courses,’’ she said. “They sometimes outnumber the boys.’’
Connecting with single mothers would help, too, she said, adding, “There tends to be more single mothers now, and they have great influence on their children.’’
She never needed prompting to get outdoors. Her dad took her and her sister hunting and fishing, and she decided early on to work in natural resources.
“When I was 12, I kind of made that decision,’’ she said. “I loved to hunt and loved wildlife.’’
In college on the northern California coast, she hunted scoters over a wire-haired dog, was impressed and decided to get one some day.
After getting her undergraduate degree, she came to Minnesota to study grouse.
‘‘I had never been here before,’’ she said.
Though it doesn’t have the quail, sage grouse, blue grouse or chukar that her native California does, Minnesota does have ruffed grouse, waterfowl and pheasants. And whitetails, bear and turkeys.
“There’s always something to do here,’’ she said.
Hooked on bird hunting
She bought a Drahthaar three years ago, bred the dog and kept a pup from the litter.
“Now I’m hooked. It’s part of my social life,’’ she said. “They will do everything. They are solid water dogs and are excellent in the field. You can teach them to hunt anything. They truly are versatile.’’
Ruffed grouse are a passion.
“I love hearing and seeing them,’’ she said. “I typically hunt alone. Hunting has always been a real personal thing with me. It’s personal time. A time to be alone and think through things and enjoy life.’’
What she learned from her study of grouse habitat is that while aspen — especially younger aspen — is crucial, a diverse landscape is important, too.
“There’s more to grouse habitat than aspen. I key on places with a little more diversity,’’ she said. “Birds tend to choose landscapes with greater evenness — multiple habitat types distributed evenly across the landscape, rather than a single habitat type.’’
So having some conifers around, good thermal cover for winter survival, can help.
Named by her mother after a special meadow, Kouffeld-Hansen hiked several hours last weekend in rolling terrain with temperatures approaching 70, flushing a half-dozen woodcock and that one fortunate grouse.
Personal time, well spent.
“Just being out is the reward,’’ she said.