Grouse count is low; will hunters stay away?

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 1, 2012 - 3:58 PM

Ted Dick has a glass-half-full attitude.

While Minnesota's spring ruffed grouse drumming counts indicate the population has fallen dramatically, Dick, an avid ruffed grouse hunter and the Department of Natural Resources grouse coordinator, said that news last week won't affect him and other diehard hunters.

"I'm still going to hunt, no matter what,'' he said. "We're still one of the top grouse states in the nation.''

But it's uncertain how other hunters will respond to the news of a 46 percent average decline from last year in drumming counts in northern Minnesota's prime grouse range. In the past, hunter numbers rose and fell with the cyclical grouse population. But in 2009, when the grouse population recently peaked, fewer than 90,000 hunters pursued them -- 40,000 to 50,000 fewer than the previous peak.

The grouse population index has dropped significantly in the past three years and signals that the birds are descending on their 10-year boom-to-bust cycle. The statewide index of 1.0 drums-per-stop this spring was half the 2.0 drums-per-stop recorded in 2009 and substantially below the 1.7 drums-per-stop last year. The index refers to the number of drumming birds counted at each stop along preset routes.

The bird population likely will fall further.

"Although it was a substantial drop, it wasn't a drop to the bottom,'' said Mike Larson, DNR grouse biologist. He estimated the grouse population could bottom out around 2014 before climbing again.

Biologists still don't know why grouse go through the 10-year cycles, but Larson said the DNR won't spend a lot of time or effort trying to solve the puzzle because it's unlikely the agency could manipulate the causes to keep grouse numbers high. The cycle occurs from Alaska to New England.

Ruffed grouse plan

The DNR has completed a long-range ruffed grouse habitat and population management plan intended to keep grouse and hunter numbers fairly stable. The goal is to keep the annual grouse harvest consistent with long-term averages, keep Minnesota the top-ranked state for grouse harvest, maintain satisfaction of grouse hunters, and retain at least 65 percent of mixed hardwood forest in a younger forest condition. The document cites several challenges, including changes to timber harvest in the state. The plan also notes that climate change could affect ruffed grouse populations. See the report at www.startribune.com/a1460.

Wolf season details

The DNR is expected to finalize details of the wolf hunting and trapping season this week, after accepting comments through an online survey on the agency's website. That unscientific survey underscored the controversy surrounding the proposed season. Eighty percent of the 7,300 people who took the survey opposed the hunt, and comments from opponents and proponents on the Star Tribune's website and others have been heated and numerous.

High lake levels

High water levels in lakes might make it harder for anglers to locate fish, but it shouldn't hurt fish habitat. In fact, it might be beneficial.

"Some flooding can provide additional forage opportunities for fish,'' said Marc Bacigalupi, DNR area fisheries manager at Brainerd, where water levels on many lakes have been well above normal.

He hasn't seen any negative impact to lake fisheries in his area. "I don't see it being a problem,'' he said.

"Fishing can be tougher,'' he said, because fish may not be where anglers usually find them.

In the Brainerd Lakes area, 50 of the DNR's 130 docks have been under water and some boat ramps and lake access roads were washed out.

Operation Dry Water

Preliminary results from last weekend's Operation Dry Water event -- designed to highlight the boating-while-intoxicated issue before the July 4th holiday -- showed the DNR issued just two boating-while-intoxicated citations. However, the flooding in northern Minnesota restricted the amount of time conservation officers devoted to the effort. They also issued 42 other citations and 71 warnings. The most common violations were no lights, no personal flotation devices, no registrations and illegal operation. In Wisconsin, 10 were arrested for BWI, and another 141 citations were issued.

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