As expected, Minnesota ruffed grouse counts were down this spring, but wildlife managers in the northwest part of the state say they’re optimistic favorable breeding conditions could help offset the decline.
“Drumming counts were way down, but we’ve been seeing some broods this summer, so that will hopefully make up for that somewhat,” said Gretchen Mehmel, manager of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area south of Roosevelt, Minn. “Brood rearing conditions have been excellent.”
Wildlife managers survey ruffed grouse populations every spring by counting the number of male ruffed grouse heard drumming on established routes throughout the state’s forest regions. The birds produce the sound by rapidly beating their wings to mark their territory and attract females.
Statewide, spring drumming counts were at 1.3 drums per stop, down from 1.6 drums per stop in 2020 and the most recent peak of 2.1 drums per stop in 2017. Ruffed grouse populations follow a predictable 10-year-cycle of highs and lows, and the population now appears to be on the downswing of that cycle.
The survey tallied counts of 1.4 drums per stop in the northeast survey region, 1.1 drums per stop in the northwest, .8 drums per stop in the central hardwoods and .9 drums per stop in the southeast survey region.
Counts typically are about .8 drums per stop during the low point of the cycle.
Randy Prachar, manager of Roseau River WMA in northern Roseau County, said he’s seeing “some limited evidence” that production for both ruffed grouse and sharp-tailed grouse is “earlier than normal and somewhat more successful.”
While drumming counts offer an indication of ruffed grouse numbers going into breeding season, this year’s dry weather resulted in nesting conditions that were favorable for brood survival.
That could have a positive impact on fall hunting success, despite the overall decline in drumming counts, Prachar speculates. Conversely, cold, wet springs can have a negative impact on production and result in fewer birds in the woods come hunting season, even if drumming counts are high.
“I do wonder if the excessive dryness affects invertebrate populations for (grouse) in a negative way, but it’s hard to draw that conclusion – at least in open areas – by the number of grasshoppers that we have around here,” Prachar said in an email. “There’s no such thing as a slam-dunk on game bird reproduction in this area, but I am cautiously optimistic about grouse numbers for this fall – we’ll see.”
Mixed bag for sharptails
The evidence of strong sharptail production Prachar has seen in northwest Minnesota stands in sharp contrast to the east-central Minnesota survey region, where spring dancing ground surveys tallied a 32% decline in sharptail numbers. The number of leks, or dancing grounds, dropped from 30 in 2019 to 18 this year and averaged 7.3 sharptails per lek.
As a result, the DNR is closing the sharptail season in the east-central zone for this fall and in future years and will continue to work with the Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society to explore habitat management options, the agency said in a news release.
The DNR didn’t sample sharptail grounds in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Sharp-tailed grouse require areas of approximately 1 to 3 square miles of grassland and brushland, so managing their habitats often requires cooperation between multiple landowners,” said Charlotte Roy, DNR grouse project leader. “We’ve known for some time that the large, open areas of grassland and brushland that sharp-tailed grouse need are changing and becoming less suitable for these birds.”
Sharptails are faring better in the northwest Minnesota survey region, where spring counts tallied 11.3 birds per lek on the 131 dancing grounds that were sampled. The statewide average of 10.8 sharptails per lek was similar to the long-term average since 1980.
Closing the sharptail season in the east-central survey area was a difficult, but imperative action, said Dave Pauly, president and habitat projects coordinator of the Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society.
The habitat changes driving the decline result from brushlands becoming forest, conversion of historic habitat to other land uses, and less fire or other disturbances on the landscape that historically created and maintained the large areas of brushland and grassland that sharptails favor.
As recently as 2010, 70 leks were counted in the east-central region. The decline from 30 to 18 leks in just two years, and the contraction of the area with active leks, indicate a significant decline in the population.
The MSGS, Pheasants Forever and others have collaborated with the DNR on targeted sharptail habitat management in an effort to reverse the decline in east-central Minnesota, Pauly said.
“The east-central range sharp-tailed grouse populations currently exist in association with limited and disjunct habitats where harvest of even a few birds could seriously impact sustainability and genetic diversity within these isolated populations,” Pauly said.
Minnesota’s hunting season for ruffed grouse statewide and sharptails in northwest Minnesota opens Saturday, Sept. 18.
More info: mndnr.gov.