Ruffed grouse may be on the upswing

Sharp-tailed numbers climbing, too

Staff Report

Grand Rapids, Minn. Minnesota’s ruffed grouse numbers increased
slightly this year after three years of decline, indicating that
the bird’s 10-year population cycle may be starting its upswing,
according to the Minnesota DNR.

Statewide, drumming counts were up 13 percent compared to 2003,
with a significant increase of 33 percent in the central hardwoods,
according to John Erb, DNR wildlife research biologist in Grand
Rapids.

“All indications are that we’re probably entering an increase
phase,” Erb said on Tuesday.

The northwest, north-central and northeast drumming indices
remained stable. Drumming counts increased 50 percent in the
southeast, although the small number of routes in that part of the
state has little effect on the statewide average.

Ruffed grouse populations are surveyed by counting the number of
male ruffed grouse heard drumming on established routes throughout
the state’s ruffed grouse range. This year, volunteers and DNR
staff worked 129 routes. For the past half-century, DNR biologists
have tracked ruffed grouse populations as they rise and fall in a
predictable 10-year cycle.

“We will likely see a continued upswing in grouse numbers over
the next four or five years, though the speed will depend on
numerous factors such as nesting and brood rearing conditions, and
winter severity,” Erb said. “Cold winters with relatively little
snow, like that observed this winter, can negatively affect winter
survival of grouse. However, our drumming indices do not suggest it
caused any further decline in grouse numbers at the regional or
statewide levels. Hunters can expect similar to improved hunting
opportunity this fall, assuming the weather is conducive to a
productive nesting season.”

Sharpies

Erb also reported that sharp-tailed grouse numbers increased in
the northwest and east-central parts of their range for a total
statewide increase of 16 percent. Observers look for male
sharptails dancing on traditional mating areas, called leks. For
leks monitored in 2002 and 2003, surveyors counted 10 percent more
birds in the east-central range and 21 percent more in the
northwest range.

“Throughout the past 15 years, sharptail population fluctuations
have mirrored the ruffed grouse population cycle,” Erb said.
“However, superimposed on these periodic changes, sharptail
populations appear to have declined over the long haul as a result
of habitat deterioration.”

Snowshoe hares near peak

Snowshoe hares are also counted on grouse survey routes, and
their numbers appear to be remaining near a peak, though notably
lower than the peak observed in the 1970s, Erb said. He said
snowshoe hare indexes were up 140 percent from a year ago but that
increase is relatively minor given the low overall numbers of
hares.

“You’re not going to be tripping over hares out there,” he
said.

Snowshoe hare populations also fluctuate on an approximate
10-year cycle, and, if pattern holds, a cyclic downturn in hare
numbers is expected soon.

Ruffed and sharp-tailed grouse surveys are conducted each spring
by DNR Wildlife staff and other cooperators. This spring, ruffed
grouse drumming routes were completed by cooperators including
staff from DNR Wildlife, Chippewa and Superior national forests,
Tamarac and Agassiz national wildlife refuges, Vermillion College,
land departments of Cass and Beltrami counties, Blandin Paper Co.,
1854 Authority, Indian bands from Fond du Lac, White Earth, Leech
Lake, Red Lake and Grand Portage, and many volunteers.

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