Butterscotch-colored aspen leaves fluttered in the breeze as my dog and I hiked through the northern Minnesota woods in search of ruffed grouse.
It was a classic October day of cobalt sky, sunshine and leaves crunching under foot. But when the yellow Lab returned to my side after a romp through heavy cover, I was startled.
Her head was crawling with black-legged ticks, commonly called deer ticks. More were crawling on her chest and legs. I immediately started plucking them off one-by-one, then headed back to my vehicle, where I found my hunting partner pulling ticks off his golden retriever.
“I looked down and saw 25 to 30 ticks on the dog and my pants,” said a frustrated Mike Porter of Minneapolis. “It sort of took the joy out of the hunt.”
Our concern, of course, was that we or our hunting dogs might contract Lyme disease from those tiny bloodsuckers. The disease can cause serious ongoing health problems in both people and dogs.
The spread of deer ticks carrying Lyme disease in Minnesota — and the increased number of humans and dogs contracting Lyme — might be part of the reason ruffed grouse hunter numbers have fallen dramatically over the past 20 years, officials say.
An estimated 142,000 ruffie hunters took to the woods in 1998; last fall just 80,654 showed up, a 43 percent decline and the fifth lowest in 20 years. To be sure, concern over Lyme disease likely isn’t the major factor in the decline.
Urbanization is a big cause, wildlife officials say. And aging baby boomer hunters aren’t being replaced by a younger generation, who grew up with computers, smartphones, electronic games and playing organized sports.
The natural rise and fall of grouse populations affect hunter numbers, too.
Still, worry over Lyme disease — for both humans and canines — is another factor likely discouraging some people from heading into the woods to hunt ruffed grouse, said Ted Dick, Department of Natural Resources forest game bird coordinator.
“It’s a concern,” said Dick. “When I go to Game Fair, it’s one of the top five things we hear most frequently from people.”
In a 2010 DNR survey of ruffed grouse hunters, 42 percent said they worried about contracting Lyme disease when hunting grouse, and the same percentage worried about exposing their dogs to the disease. However, only about 5 percent said they reduced their hunting activity because of those concerns.
But that survey is eight years old, and Dick said concern has only grown over the years as the Lyme disease cases in Minnesota have increased.
Most of Minnesota’s ruffed grouse range now is considered a high-risk area, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. That high-risk area was much smaller in 2010.
Last year, there were 1,408 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in humans in Minnesota — the second highest since records started in 1996. More than 19,000 people in the state have been afflicted with Lyme disease over that time. To date, 54 of Minnesota’s 87 counties have established black-legged tick populations. In 2015, the number was 45 (and a previous study from 1996 showed only nine).
The state doesn’t track Lyme diseases in dogs, but those cases, too, likely have increased, despite the prevalence of Lyme vaccines for dogs and oral and topical tick repellents.
For me, the presence of deer ticks and the possibility of my dog or me contracting Lyme disease hasn’t kept me and my hunting buddies out of the woods, but it has reduced the amount of time we spend there.
We tend to go later in the season, after frost, when ticks are less active.
Dick, an avid ruffed grouse hunter, advises hunters to protect themselves and their dogs. He uses tick gators to prevent ticks from crawling up legs, and wears permethrin-treated clothing. The Health Department says using DEET-based products on your skin is another option.
“Check everyone for ticks thoroughly when you are done,” Dick recommended, and be sure your dog doesn’t bring ticks into the house when you get home.
Dogs obviously are tick magnets. “Dogs are an additional risk, and you have to keep them safe, but it’s worth it to have them out there sharing the hunt,” he said. “I wouldn’t go without mine.” He uses a topical tick preventive on his English setter, and also has the dog vaccinated.
My dog gets an annual Lyme vaccination and I also use a topical tick preventive, but nothing is 100 percent effective. So I check my dog for ticks after every hunt.
The ruffed grouse opener used to be an annual tradition for me and my hunting friends. But we sat out last weekend’s opener. We usually do now almost every year. Lyme disease is one concern, but frankly the trend toward warmer autumns has been an almost bigger factor for us skipping the opener.
Temperatures in the 70s are simply too hot for hunters and dogs. Last weekend at Grand Rapids — the heart of ruffed grouse territory — temperatures hit the 70s and high 80s. Last year was the same.
“Grouse hunting is all about leaves changing color and coming down so you can get better shots,” Dick said. “There’s supposed to be a chill in the air. But if you get there and it’s 80 degrees, that changes things. It shortens the amount of time people will grouse hunt.”
Added Dick: “I’m convinced year-round changes in weather can be having impacts to grouse hunting and grouse populations, too.”
In winter, ruffed grouse burrow in snow for warmth and protection from predators. But the average annual snow depth in Minnesota between Nov. 1 and March 31 has dropped by 20 to 30 percent over the past 18 years, climatologists say.
Meanwhile, it appears the ruffed grouse population has dipped this year. The spring drumming counts were down 29 percent and last year’s harvest was 285,180, down about 8 percent from 2016.
Still, Minnesota offers some of the best grouse hunting in the nation. And it’s tough to beat a walk in the woods on a brisk fall day, following a good dog, hoping for a few flushes.
I plan to be Up North next month, reviving a treasured tradition. But I’ll go prepared to fend off ticks, too.
Doug Smith is a former Star Tribune outdoors reporter. Reach him at email@example.com.