For the first time, Minnesota ruffed grouse hunters will be surveyed to determine why they hunt, why they don't, and what it takes to keep them satisfied.

"We also want to know why grouse hunter numbers are declining, even though we have some of the best grouse hunting opportunities in the Midwest," said Dennis Simon, Department of Natural Resources wildlife section chief.

For decades, grouse hunter numbers have risen and fallen along with the 10-year, boom-to-bust grouse cycle. Except for recent years. Despite grouse being at peak population levels, the number of ruffie hunters dropped to 87,000 last year and in 2008.

That's a far cry from the 142,000 who hunted 10 years ago, the last time birds were at the peak populations.

"The hunters just weren't out there," Simon said. "What's going on?"

The DNR recently hired Ted Dick as ruffed grouse coordinator to help promote grouse hunting. The survey results should help Dick and the Ruffed Grouse Society, which pays part of his salary, figure out how to improve hunter participation.

"Do we need more hunter walking trails, or more information on where [young] aspen is located or where our grouse populations are highest?" Simon said. "We don't know what grouse hunters' attitudes are."

The random survey likely will go out in late December or early January.

Meanwhile, grouse reports have been encouraging this fall. Hunters are flushing good numbers of birds in many areas. Conservation officer Dan Starr of Tower said grouse hunting pressure was as high as he's ever seen, and officer Jeff Birchem of Baudette said hunting pressure at Beltrami Island State forest is the highest he's seen in many years.

Split duck season? Minnesota duck hunters also will be surveyed again after this season, for the first time since 2007. As part of the survey, they will be asked what they think about splitting the duck season and creating zones in the state.

For example, the duck season could open on the same date across the state, but then the season might close for a period in the south, then reopen. The DNR also might consider trying to open the season earlier, too.

"That would give us a shot at early migrants but maintain the traditions of late-season hunting," Simon said. "It's something we need to talk about. I personally like it."

Obviously such a season would be more complicated for hunters. "But I'm looking at hunter satisfaction: How do we keep existing hunters in the game and improve their satisfaction?" Simon asked.

The topic is timely because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows states to select season options every five years and will do so in 2011. Currently Minnesota could zone the state once and split the season once.

"We haven't used that option," Simon said. But Minnesota might consider an expanded menu of zone and split options "to give us more flexibility," he said. "It doesn't mean we'll implement them."

A bill that would have changed the law requiring that the duck season not open before the Saturday closest to Oct. 1 was vetoed last year, but Simon said the agency is going to pursue the issue. Had that law been changed, this year's season could have opened Sept. 25.

Duck stamp sales As of last week, the DNR had sold 52,152 state duck stamps, up 2 percent from a year ago. For the season last year, the agency sold about 90,000. Meanwhile, sales of small-game hunting licenses is flat: The DNR has sold 217,332 this season, compared to 217,944 at this time last year.

Walk-in hunting OK'd A walk-in hunting access program in Minnesota finally will become a reality.

"We'll have something up and running by next fall," Simon said.

Federal officials have approved the DNR's application for a pilot program and awarded the state $582,000 for the first year. Minnesota has proposed a three-year, $2.7 million program that could enroll up to 50,000 acres, and could get funding for a second year as early as this month.

The voluntary program, modeled after successful ones in the Dakotas, will pay landowners a per-acre fee to allow public hunting access. Minnesota hopes to enroll 10,000 acres by next fall in southwestern Minnesota.

The money comes from $50 million appropriated by Congress to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "Open Fields" program for states to create or expand voluntary hunter-access programs on private lands.

Guides to get break A bill waiting to be signed into law by President Obama will cut red tape for Minnesota fishing guides. It exempts fishing guides and other small-boat operators from having to obtain a Transportation Worker Identification Card (TWIC). To obtain the card, guides are required to pay a $132 application fee and make two trips to a Coast Guard licensing center. That has caused unnecessary paperwork and expense for many fishing guides. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., authored the bill. "The TWIC is meant to secure our ports by identifying those who should have access to secure maritime facilities and vessels," Oberstar said. "It was never intended to regulate a fishing guide taking out a customer in his 16-foot Lund."

Doug Smith •