Minnesota grouse hunters are inching toward a new season with higher hopes than they've had in several years, but heavy summer rains, dense vegetation and the widespread blow-down of trees in prime territory are of concern as opening day approaches.

"All in all, it's going to be better this year than last year," said Jerry Kolter of Northwoods Bird Dogs in Sandstone, Minn.

More than 83,000 small-game license buyers are expected to break out their shotguns starting with next Saturday's season opener. Before it all ends on Jan. 1, upwards of 315,000 grouse could be harvested from vast public hunting grounds mainly north of a line from Rush City to Alexandria.

With the population of the state's most popular game bird on the upswing in its 10-year population cycle, Kolter said he's been telling customers that it's the right time to acquire a good, young dog. According to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), spring drumming counts for ruffies were 18 percent higher than levels measured last year and the year before. There's also been an increase in trails marked exclusively for walking — a reaction to complaints about all-terrain vehicle (ATV) usage and perceived crowding in the woods.

The most recent statewide survey — taken five years ago by DNR — showed 28 percent of Minnesota grouse hunters unhappy with the presence of ATVs in areas they hunted. Using ATVs to hunt grouse is legal, and more than 40 percent of the survey's respondents said they weren't bothered by the machines.

But in Pine County alone, a popular destination for grouse hunters who live in the Twin Cities, 45 miles of walking-only trails have been designated in the past year, said Ted Dick, forest game bird coordinator for the DNR.

"That's a big step," he said.

The agency doesn't have much money to build new trails, especially when maintenance of existing trails already is wanting. But understanding detriments to participation in the sport — including legal furbearer traps known to kill dogs — is important to the DNR's concentrated effort to reverse a downward trend in interest.

Ruffed grouse hunter numbers have been as high as 92,000 in a single season during the past decade. License sales spike whenever grouse populations rise. But hunter participation in the last grouse population peak were nearly 40 percent lower than during the same point in the grouse cycle in the late 1990s. At that time, 142,000 hunters a year were going afield for the birds.

Dick said the DNR is poised once again to survey grouse hunters after the upcoming season to gauge concerns about flush rates, ATVs, trapping and myriad other factors on the hunter satisfaction scale. And on the trapping issue, the agency has its weight behind proposed legislation that would outlaw current furbearer trap arrangements that inadvertently kill dogs.

"For people around here, it's a very big concern," said Dick, who is stationed in Grand Rapids and whose DNR job is partially funded by the Ruffed Grouse Society.

Even with its issues, Minnesota remains a bucket-list destination for serious grouse hunters across the country. Meadow Kouffeld-Hansen, a regional wildlife biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society, said Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin are clearly the top three states for hunting ruffed grouse and woodcock.

Minnesota has 528 designated hunting areas in the ruffed grouse range covering nearly 1 million acres of public land, according to DNR. There's also more than 40 designated ruffed grouse management areas and 600 miles of hunter walking trails.

Especially in north-central Minnesota, Kouffeld-Hansen said, grouse still thrive on young forests created by an active wood products industry. Not all states are as blessed with such habitat.

"We take it for granted," Kouffeld-Hansen said. "And there's so much public land here … it all makes grouse hunting so great."

Kolter, Dick and Kouffeld-Hansen all agree that the summer's heavy rains could possibly have stunted the rising grouse population…. or not. It's a wait-and-see game because the state doesn't attempt to count grouse in late summer or early fall to see how well broods formed.

So far, the anecdotal information from loggers, conservation groups, DNR managers, sportsmen and other close observers has been positive but not conclusive. It's enough to know that drumming counts were so high in the spring.

"You'd think it [excessive summer rain] would have to have some effect," Kolter said. "But then again, birds can be tough as hell."

He said the summer's surplus moisture undoubtedly will affect the upcoming season in at least one regard: Dogs will have to work hard to pick up scent through dense plant growth on the forest floor.

"The vegetation is heavy, heavy, heavy," Kolter said.

In addition, Dick said, windstorms have wiped out a lot of trails and some hunters will encounter tree damage that will prevent them from hunting in certain areas.

"Right now there's a lot of bulldozers out there trying to bang those trails open," Dick said.

Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213