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Survey shows surprising increase in Minnesota spring ruffed grouse counts

Historically, spring drumming counts were related to the fall ruffed grouse population, but they have not been a reliable indicator in recent years.

Ruffed grouse
Male ruffed grouse make a distinct "drumming" sound by rapidly beating their wings.
Contributed/North Dakota Game and Fish Department
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ST. PAUL – Minnesota’s ruffed grouse spring population counts are up from last year, which was not expected during the current declining phase of the 10-year cycle – a pattern recorded for 72 years.

“While ruffed grouse drumming counts are up, they are not a reliable way to predict the fall hunting season,” said Charlotte Roy, grouse project leader with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “We also recorded an increase in sharp-tailed grouse in east-central Minnesota, which is positive this year but could be short-lived.”

Unexpectedly high ruffed grouse counts this year may have resulted from the warm temperatures and dry conditions last year during May and June, which favors high nest success and chick survival. Snow conditions also were favorable during winter for roosting throughout much of the core of grouse range.

Statewide, the survey tallied 1.9 drums per stop, up from a statewide average of 1.3 drums per stop in 2021. The highest count recorded was in the Northwest region at 2.9 drums per stop, up from 1.1 drums per stop last year. In the Northeast, which forms the core of ruffed grouse range in Minnesota, the survey tallied 2.0 drums per stop, up from 1.4 drums per stop in 2021. The count in the Central Hardwoods region was 1.4 drums per stop, up from .8 last year; and 1.0 drums per stop in the Southeast, up from .9 drums per stop in 2021.

Grouse survey areas.JPG
Contributed/Minnesota DNR

The DNR and its partners use spring drumming counts to help monitor the ruffed grouse breeding population through time. Drumming is a low sound produced by males as they beat their wings rapidly and in increasing frequency to signal the location of their territory. Drumming displays also attract females that are ready to begin nesting. Ruffed grouse populations are surveyed by counting the number of male ruffed grouse heard drumming on established routes throughout the state’s forested regions.

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Historically, these spring counts were related to the fall population; however, in recent years, drumming counts have not reliably predicted the fall hunting season.

The number of birds present during the fall hunting season also depends upon nesting success and chick survival during the spring and summer. Nesting success and chick survival are influenced by many factors, including weather during May and June – which has been more extreme in recent years – and other factors such as disease and predators. This year in May and June, heavy rainfall and flooding affected much of the core of ruffed grouse range.

Still, there's at least cause for optimism. Charlie Tucker, manager of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area at Norris Camp south of Roosevelt, Minnesota, said local counts mirrored the statewide trend. Red Lake WMA and adjacent Beltrami Island State Forest are popular destinations for ruffed grouse hunting in northwest Minnesota.

"Our local counts were up a bit, which is always nice," Tucker said. "Despite the wet spring, I think we largely avoided any wet, cold June weather that may have hampered chick survival. Based on casual observations from folks around here, people are seeing an average number of broods and a normal amount of chicks per brood."

Spring ruffed grouse counts also increased in the forested areas of north-central North Dakota where the birds can be found. Drumming counts increased 52% in the Turtle Mountains, but declined 5% in the Pembina Hills, the Game and Fish Department reported earlier this month.

The complete Minnesota ruffed grouse survey report can be found on the grouse management page of the DNR website ( mndnr.gov/Wildlife/Grouse.html ).

DNR downplays sharptail rebound

Minnesota’s sharp-tailed grouse population increased significantly in the east-central portion of the state, the DNR reported Thursday. The population increase follows the closure of the 2021 hunting season in east-central Minnesota but does not signify long-term recovery of the population, biologists cautioned.

The number of leks — traditional male display areas also called dancing grounds — counted in the east-central region remains low and the leks are smaller than those in areas with abundant sharp-tailed grouse, the DNR said.

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Survey crews in the east-central region counted 205 sharptails on 21 leks, up 55% from 132 birds and 18 leks in 2021. Most of the leks – 71% – were in the Aitkin area.

In the Northwest survey region, 1,779 grouse were counted on 142 leks, which was similar to last year. Sharptail numbers appear to be stable in the Northwest, although they may be increasing in some areas and declining in others.

“The increase in the east-central region should be regarded cautiously, as warm, dry conditions during spring and summer 2021, followed by favorable winter snow roosting conditions, likely resulted in strong nest success, chick survival and overwinter survival,” Roy said. “But we know threats remain for the birds in this area, including habitat loss, as well as more random events like strong storms, flooding and disease outbreaks.”

To count sharp-tailed grouse, observers look for males displaying on leks. This year’s statewide average of 12.2 sharp-tailed grouse per lek was similar to the long-term average since 1980, but a drop in the number of leks in the east-central region, in the absence of changes in survey effort, indicate that the population has dropped significantly in that portion of the range. These changes are thought to be driven largely by habitat loss.

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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