The exact status of Minnesota’s ruffed grouse population remains a mystery after last weekend’s National Grouse and Woodcock Hunt headquartered in Grand Rapids, Minn., sponsored by the Ruffed Grouse Society (RGS) and the American Woodcock Society (AWS).

But findings from the annual event indicate ruffed grouse are in fact more plentiful this year than last in the state’s north country.

Held last Thursday and Friday, the hunt attracted 64 wingshooters from as far away as Texas to spend two days in northern Minnesota’s woods following a cross section of pointing and flushing dogs.

In part a fundraiser that benefits RGS and AWS as well as the Grand Rapids RGS chapter, the hunt also provides valuable insights into the statuses of the two forest birds.

Ruffed grouse in particular have been a puzzler of late. Spring drumming counts of these birds, which historically have provided a reliable index of their population, have during the past 15 years failed to accurately correlate to fall hunters’ harvests.

This disconnect, some researchers believe, indicates that some grouse hatched in spring aren’t living through their first summer, perhaps because of West Nile virus or another malady.

Drumming counts conducted across the ruffed grouse’s primary range in Minnesota in 2018 and again this spring provide a case in point. Both were essentially the same, at 1.5 drums per stop. Yet, the ruffed grouse harvest at this year’s RGS hunt near Grand Rapids rose 17% from a year ago.

Moreover, a total of 5.8 birds (grouse and woodcock combined) were taken per hunter this year, a 41% increase over the 4.1 birds per hunter recorded last year.

In better news still, the recruitment ratio this year — reached by dividing the number of immature birds harvested by the number of mature females harvested — was 7.67 for grouse, far exceeding the 2.72 ratio in 2018, and 78% higher than the 2014-18 average.

(The woodcock recruitment ratio was 1.22 at last hunt, off from the 2.76 recorded last year but close to the five-year average of 1.28.)

Brent Rudolph, chief RGS and AWS conservation and legislative officer, said bird-finding success varied among the 64 participants.

“Some hunters were seeing quite a few birds,” Rudolph said, “while others were less impressed with the numbers they were finding.”

Grouse hunters who have been afield since the season opened in mid-September also report spotty success finding birds. Habitats that in years past have held reasonably good numbers of grouse, even at or near the bottom of the bird’s approximate 10-year population cycle, have this year been empty, or nearly so, some hunters say.

Yet certain other lesser-quality coverts seem to have no shortage of birds.

These and other ruffed grouse population mysteries were the focus of the long and celebrated career of the late U researcher Gordon Gullion. When the annual RGS hunt began in 1982, Gullion realized that because it would be held in the same place and at the same time each year, it could yield important information about the seemingly ever-fluctuating population and health of ruffed grouse.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources forest bird coordinator Ted Dick said Tuesday that while it’s unclear whether findings from this year’s RGS event indicate grouse numbers will cycle upward, the hunt’s findings are nonetheless upbeat.

“There’s still a lot we don’t know about grouse,” Dick said. “But the recruitment ratio is positive. It means that when conditions are right, we can still produce grouse.”

danderson@startribune.com