Minnesota’s early-season ruffed grouse hunters will play an important role in a wildlife research project to determine if West Nile virus is suppressing the production of young birds.

For the second year in a row, the Department of Natural Resources is offering field kits to volunteer hunters for their use to collect blood samples and hearts from harvested birds.

DNR Wildlife Health Group leader Michelle Carstensen said sample collection is best in the early season because grouse infected with mosquito-borne West Nile can die from the virus before hunting season ends.

“We’re trying to get those early birds because there’s a better chance of finding it,’’ Carstensen said. “It’s the most active window for that virus.’’

Six hundred of the kits will be available to hunters through the agency’s statewide network of wildlife offices. The collection goal is to get returns from 400 kits. Minnesota is collaborating on the research with Wisconsin and Michigan.

The kits come with a data card to fill out and a mailing setup. Carstensen said researchers want hunters to gather drops of blood within 20 minutes of a kill, and later save the heart.

West Nile virus has been present in Minnesota since the early 2000s, and cases have been found in wild birds, people and other mammals. Birds vary in vulnerability to the virus.

New this year for Minnesota volunteers is a chance to win a prize for helping. Each hunter who drops off fully completed West Nile virus test kits and data sheets before Jan. 1 will be entered in drawings to win a 16-gauge shotgun from the Ruffed Grouse Society and a full-day hunt from Pineridge Grouse Camp.

Minnesota is one of the best places in the nation for ruffed grouse hunting, and the Grand Rapids-based Ruffed Grouse Society annually hosts a national hunt in October that provides valuable wildlife management data. The state’s adult grouse population has been cycling around a stable 10-year average. This year’s season for ruffed and spruce grouse opens Saturday and runs through Jan. 1.