Nonmotorized hunter walking trails would receive overdue upgrades as part of a new initiative proposed by the Ruffed Grouse Society.

The $300,000 program — part of a much larger package of outdoors projects recommended for funding this year with state lottery proceeds — is designed to address what the conservation group has described as a "generally degraded system."

Fixing up 120 existing trailheads with signage, gates, parking and other infrastructure improvements would better -serve upland hunters, birders and hikers, according to the proposal. Grouse season opens Sept. 19 this year and wildlife officials are hoping for a turnaround in participation.

Ted Dick, forest game bird coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources, said 95,000 grouse hunters per season was the DNR's goal as recently as 10 years ago. But last year, despite surveys that showed good grouse abundance, the number of hunters continued to drop to somewhere around 65,000.

Dick said sprucing up existing walking trails and building a couple of new ones is vital to attracting more outdoors enthusiasts to the sport.

"It's really an issue and we're trying to get more people," Dick said. "Maintaining good hunter walking trails is one of the more important things we can do to recruit."

In surveys conducted by the DNR, a significant portion of forest game bird hunters who utilize public lands have expressed dismay over disruptions caused by off-road, motorized vehicles. Minnesota is considered a ruffed grouse mecca with more than 500 designated hunting areas in the birds' range. More than 40 of those areas are actively managed to produce and hold grouse. Motorized vehicles are legal in many places, but the state has carved out 600 miles of nonmotorized hunter walking trails for those want, quieter, foot-travel experiences.

Dick said the walking trails are relatively inexpensive to maintain — about $120 per mile per year. The grooming is welcomed by users because they know they won't get lost or end up on private land where they're not wanted, Dick said. Moreover, the designated walking trails lead hunters to woods that have been managed with logging plans meant to create productive grouse habitat.

Gary Drotts, a retired DNR wildlife manager who has lived in northern Minnesota his whole life, drafted the trail improvement project on behalf of the Ruffed Grouse Society for consideration by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR). The commission included it as one of 87 projects recommended to the Legislature for approval. The overall $71 million bill is still awaiting final action as lawmakers continue to meet periodically in special session.

As part of the project, the Ruffed Grouse Society will complete a detailed assessment of hunter walking trails across all public forest land administrators in Minnesota. The unified data set will help agencies prioritize trail needs, Drotts said. Not to be overlooked are the benefits to the timber industry for access to forest areas due for logging.

Other goals of the project are to build 10 miles of new trails and to update maps. Forty percent of the walking trail network is located on state Wildlife Management Areas; 30 percent is located on state forest land, 20 percent on county forest and 10 percent on national forest.

Norm Moody is a former Cass County land commissioner who has DNR experience and expertise in forestry and wildlife management. An avid upland bird hunter himself, he championed the Ruffed Grouse Society's proposal as a member of the LCCMR.

"I'm a strong supporter of hunter walking trails," Moody said in an interview. "These lands belong to us and anything we can do to make them usable is worth considering."

The whole idea of the walking trails is to connect hunters to areas of the forest that have been enhanced for grouse and other wildlife by phased logging.

"The trails are fun to walk and they get you to the habitat that's being managed," Moody said. "If you lay it out right you can have some really unbelievable hunting."

Moody said Minnesota's ruffed grouse hunters this year can expect similar numbers of birds as were seen a year ago in the northern forest. Nesting conditions this year were productive and Moody said he's been seeing impressive broods in Cass County where he lives.

Tony Kennedy • 612-673-