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Ruffed Grouse Society works on habitat, hunter walking trails

Higher drumming count may not mean more grouse when season opens Sept. 17.

ruffed grouse
Minnesota and Wisconsin ruffed grouse hunting seasons open Sept. 17. The Ruffed Grouse Society is working to improve grouse habitat and hunter access in the region.
Contributed / Missouri Department of Conservation
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GRAND RAPIDS — Hunter walking trails aren't much good if they aren’t marked, cleared of brush, accessible and mapped, and that’s where the Ruffed Grouse Society is trying to make a difference.

The Minnesota section of the national conservation group is making a focused effort to rejuvenate the hunter walking trail system in the Chippewa National Forest, including mowing trails to enable hunter access and improving habitat along the routes that are off-limits to all motorized vehicles.

Many of the trails, laid out decades ago, have fallen into disrepair, with little or no signage or maintenance. The society received a $300,000 state grant from the Legislative and Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources for the effort that includes restoring and enhancing 200 trailheads and 80 miles of existing trail, adding 20 miles of new trail and updating online trail maps.

Marty Niewind, president of the Grand Rapids chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society, operates a mower to cut tall grass and brush along the Jingo Lake hunter walking trail in the Chippewa National Forest. The society is using grants and timber sale revenue to improve grouse habitat and hunter access in the national forest.
Contributed / Ruffed Grouse Society

“It doesn’t do much good to have a trail that nobody can find,” said Scott Johnson, the new Minnesota conservation director for the Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society. “Part of our goal is to get a complete list of where these trails are, what shape the gates are in and making sure they are inventoried and signed properly so people can look them up.”

And because it’s more fun to actually see a few grouse when you go for an autumn walk in the woods, the Ruffed Grouse Society is a designated forest stewardship partner with the U.S. Forest Service. The society is researching the best places to conduct forest management to benefit grouse and woodcock. Then the group gets to sell that timber to loggers and plow the money back into more habitat work and trails. The national stewardship program allows the Forest Service to tap into the expertise of conservation groups like the society.


The young forest that sprouts after timber harvest, especially after cutting aspen, is considered prime habitat for grouse, woodcock and deer as well as troubled species like golden-winged warblers. Grouse also need big, old aspen at some times of the year as well as conifers and simply open areas.

Forest cutting for grouse habitat
An area of the Chippewa National Forest cut under a cooperative program that allows the Ruffed Grouse Society to plow money from the timber sale back into grouse habitat and hunter access. The young aspen that will sprout after the cutting is critical grouse habitat.
Contributed / Ruffed Grouse Society

“All the money raised from the timber sale, and even more that we throw in from other sources, goes back into habitat work and access on the forest,” Johnson said.

The society also has landed a series of conservation habitat grants from state coffers like the Outdoor Heritage Fund that’s stocked with state sales tax dedicated to conservation efforts. The group has conducted targeted logging, shearing and intentional fires on thousands of acres in northern Minnesota to improve habitat for moose, deer, grouse, woodcock and pollinators like butterflies and bees. Over the past two years, the Ruffed Grouse Society has used $550,000 in state conservation grants to improve 2,770 acres of wildlife habitat on more than 450 sites.

Johnson noted that maintaining access for hunters who chose to walk rather than ride is important as motorized activities expand across the northwoods.

“Habitat is the most critical element of what we do, but access is important, too,” Johnson said. “There’s no doubt that these (hunter walking) trails are getting more important. … There are a lot more miles of forest roads and ATV trails out there than there are walking trails, so these are increasingly in demand.”

grouse habitat tour
Wildlife and forestry officials from the Minnesota DNR, Chippewa National Forest, Natural Resources Research Institute, American Bird Conservancy, Blandin Paper Co., Potlatch and other agencies tour a ruffed grouse habitat project headed by the Ruffed Grouse Society in the Chippewa National Forest in August.
Contributed / Ruffed Grouse Society

Find Chippewa National Forest trails

A list of most hunter walking trails on the Chippewa National Forest is available at fs.usda.gov/activity/chippewa/recreation/hunting . The Chippewa National Forest boundary encompasses about 1.6 million acres of which the Forest Service owns/manages about 660,000 acres.

Chippewa National Forest.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune


Minnesota DNR grouse management areas

Minnesota has 49 wildlife management areas that are managed for grouse habitat and hunter access. They range in size from 400 to 4,800 acres and contain over 184 miles of hunter walking trails. They are sprinkled across the northern half of Minnesota. Go to dnr.state.mn.us/hunting/grouse/index.html to find out where they are.

Breeding, training and hunting Gordon setters is the Fries family’s passion.

Minnesota DNR walking trails

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources maintains 253 hunter walking trails across the northern tier of counties that offer more than 850 miles of forest trails open to public hunting. It’s walking only — no motorized vehicles — offering some quality chances at seeing ruffed grouse, woodcock, turkey and deer.

Most of the trails have parking areas, although some require parking on a roadside. The DNR usually contracts with private parties to mow and the eventual cost to keep the trails clear comes to about $175 per mile.

Annual tent camp gathering in the forest now focuses on food, friendship and maybe some grouse.

All 253 trails are listed in an interactive map on the DNR’s website at dnr.state.mn.us/hunting/hwt . You can look them up by name or by county, home-in on the area of your choice and click on a trail to find out exactly where it is and how to get there.

If you have questions about a specific trail or area, or the wildlife likely to be found there, feel free to contact a local DNR area wildlife office. You can look them up at dnr.state.mn.us/areas/wildlife .

More grouse this year? Maybe not

While Wisconsin saw a dip in its annual grouse drumming count this spring, Minnesota saw an unexpected increase in drumming. Biologists had expected another down year or two as the bird’s mysterious 10-year cycle continued to drop. But last summer’s perfectly warm and dry nesting conditions likely allowed more chicks to survive and, coupled with good winter snow roosting conditions, may have kept more birds alive into this spring.

ruffed grouse 2022.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

That good fortune may have ended sharply this May and June, however, when cold and wet weather likely hit hard on newborn chicks. Some wildlife biologists say there may have been very poor grouse production in some areas while others note that hen grouse may have re-nested in drier periods after their first brood failed.


Charlotte Roy, grouse research scientist for the Minnesota DNR, says she’s heard reports of poor nest success from DNR field staff and others out in the woods.

“From the people in the field I’ve talked to, I’m not hearing of many grouse chicks being seen out there,” Roy said. “That can change. And I have some reports of late broods, maybe after their first nest failed. … But re-nesting is usually not as productive as first nests.”

Roy said that the drumming count was an accurate reflection of more birds on the landscape in May. But that doesn’t necessarily mean more birds for hunters in October.

“The drumming count really isn’t a reliable indicator of grouse available in the fall, at least not any more,” she said. “There may be pockets of low grouse numbers. But there also will be areas with good numbers. People need to move around and they will find grouse.”

Most birds in bag are young

Data obtained by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources during its study of West Nile Virus in grouse found that nearly two-thirds of the grouse shot each autumn are young-of-the-year birds hatched that year. That means the success of each year’s broods are critically important to how many birds hunters see and bag each fall.

Grouse opener Sept. 17

Minnesota and Wisconsin ruffed grouse hunting seasons start Saturday, Sept. 17. Minnesota’s season ends Jan. 1 and Wisconsin’s ends Jan. 8. The daily limit in each state is five birds.

Sharp-tailed season closed again

Sharp-tailed grouse hunting season is closed in Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota again this year due to chronically low populations. Minnesota has an open sharp-tailed season in northwestern counties that runs Sept. 17 to Nov. 30.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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