Minnesota's ruffed grouse hunters are discounting the bad news of low spring drumming counts as they prepare for a season they hope will be salvaged by 2021's chick-friendly nesting conditions.
"It's crazy how quickly the opener is coming up,'' said Ryan Smith, a hard-core grouse hunter from the Brainerd area. "If bird numbers are like last year, it should be a good year.''
The fall harvest season is here, and not without controversy. Bear and dove hunting opened Wednesday, and waterfowl hunters will take their first shots Saturday morning to open the early goose season and a new early teal season dubbed "experimental'' by the Department of Natural Resources.
Conflict arose this week when tribal authorities announced that wild rice waters on the White Earth and Leech Lake reservations will be off-limits to teal hunters, with the Leech Lake band of Chippewa also specifically prohibiting goose hunting on rice beds. State officials are investigating the legality of the closures — which the tribes said are necessary to protect wild rice harvesters from accidentally getting shot.
Grouse season won't open until Sept. 18, including hunting of sharp-tailed grouse in the Northwest Zone. But Smith and others are gearing up and working with their dogs. His youngest canine, Loki, an English cocker spaniel named after the Norse god of mischief, will be new to the autumn woods. Loki will be paired with Smith's veteran Gordon setter, Mia.
"I think I'm like a lot of grouse hunters with dogs,'' said Smith, who hosts a family-and-friends grouse camp each October. "I am into it as much or more for the dog work as I am for the birds.''
According to the DNR, ruffed grouse are in the declining phase of the species' approximately 10-year cycle. This year's spring population survey showed a decline from the previous year. The survey is conducted on established routes by counting drumming noises made by male ruffed grouse, who beat their wings to attract females.
The statewide average this year was 1.3 drums per stop. The most recent peak in 2017 was 2.1. During the low point of the cycles, counts are typically about 0.8.
But drumming isn't the only indicator of grouse abundance when it comes to fall hunting. Charlotte Roy, grouse program leader for the DNR, said this year's warm, dry nesting conditions favored survival of chicks. In addition, an excellent grasshopper hatch provided food for the birds this summer, even if other food sources were cut by unprecedented drought, she said.
Roy is conducting studies of Minnesota's spruce grouse, noting very good survival of broods this year. Her study areas in northern Minnesota overlap ruffed grouse habitat.
"Hunting success in the fall depends on the hatch — not necessarily the drumming counts,'' said the DNR's Ted Dick, an avid grouse hunter and forest wildlife habitat consultant. "I'm going out on a limb and saying there should be some pretty good hunting this fall.''
For the second year in a row, Minnesota hunters won't be asked to cooperate with a study of West Nile virus in ruffed grouse. Previously, in 2018 and 2019, DNR provided tissue sampling kits to hunting volunteers who wanted to assist in a three-state study of West Nile's impacts on the birds.
Roy said early research results indicated that infected ruffed grouse are capable of recovering from the disease. She wrote a paper on the subject soon to be published by the Journal of Wildlife Disease.
Roy said the tricky part of the West Nile study is that it couldn't account for the number of ruffed grouse that died from the disease before they were harvested. But there's enough evidence to show that some birds are persisting after becoming infected, she said.
"The best thing we can do is provide good habitat for the birds,'' she said. "With good habitat, they can better withstand infection.''
Roy is again asking spruce grouse hunters this season to collect and submit to the DNR three to five feathers from each bird they harvest. Genetic examination of the feathers will help scientists interpret how the species is using the landscape and whether spruce grouse are separating into distinct genetic groups while losing touch with their former home range.
Also this year, grouse hunters themselves are garnering research attention.
According to license data kept by the DNR, the sport is in sharp decline. From 2009 through 2019, the estimated number of grouse hunters collapsed by nearly 30% to 61,600 hunters. Adam Landon, a human dimensions scientist for the DNR, said the agency is partnering with the University of Minnesota to query grouse and pheasant hunters who have allowed their small-game hunting licenses to lapse.
"Our intent is to try and get at why they are abandoning these pursuits,'' Landon said. "What may be blocking them from participating?''
A similar survey of lapsed deer hunters showed that limited access to desired hunting land was a key constraint. Landon said the participation surveys will go out to grouse and pheasant hunters after Jan. 1. A summary of the results should be completed by midsummer.
Laurie Chamberlain of the Brainerd area chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society, said Minnesota's grouse and woodcock hunters are blessed with countless acres of public hunting lands. He also said hunters shouldn't put too much stock into predictions of bird abundance.
"They talk about the cycles, but in my experience if you are willing to bust some brush you're going to find birds,'' Chamberlain said. "You just have to be in the right kind of habitat.''