By Tori J. McCormick

Contributing Writer

It’s no secret that southeast Minnesota is the top destination
for spring turkey hunters. While the population has exploded in
other regions of the state, particularly in the Minnesota River
Valley, the southeast has the highest densities of wild turkeys in
the state.

The region’s mature oak forests provide the perfect environment
for turkeys to proliferate.

“As the forests of southeast Minnesota and western Wisconsin
have matured, the ruffed grouse population has declined
substantially during the past 30 years,” said Rick Horton, forest
research biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society in Grand Rapids.
“These areas also are open less dense, for example, than northern
Minnesota forests, which are managed more heavily, as a result,
young birds have less protection from predators.”

On Saturday, Horton will give a seminar at the Deer and Turkey
Expo in Rochester on how to manage oak forests for grouse and other
wildlife.

“The seminar will give landowners some idea on how to make their
lands more attractive to ruffed grouse,” he said.

According to Horton, ruffed grouse densities in southeast
Minnesota once rivaled those in northern Minnesota. However, a
series of events changed the landscape, which spurred the decline
of ruffed grouse.

“Historically, there was a huge population (of ruffed grouse) in
the southeast up until 1970,” Horton said. “The cycles were similar
to what you find today in northern forests. But once the forest
there (in the southeast) matured, bird numbers dropped and
dropped.”

According to Horton, the ruffed grouse decline coincided with a
federal ban on DDT, a pesticide that killed scores of raptors. In
turn, the ban caused raptor populations to dramatically increase.
Additionally, furbearer prices crashed, which resulted in less
trapping and the proliferation of mammalian predators on the
landscape.

Both events took a toll on the ruffed grouse population.

“Obviously, the DDT ban was good for the environment,” Horton
said. “But predator numbers skyrocketed, the rest is history.”

Even in a perfect world, managing ruffed grouse in southeast
Minnesota is a difficult enterprise because the region has far less
public lands than north-central and northern Minnesota.

Northern Minnesota, for example, is home to the state’s paper
and pulp industry. As a result, more public forest land is managed
for multiple use.

“Ruffed grouse need young, dense forests to thrive, and that’s
what we have in northern Minnesota because of the paper and pulp
industry,” Horton said. “But that’s not happening in the southeast,
mostly because mature forests are less attractive to industry.”

Horton also sees an ominous trend developing for ruffed grouse
across its U.S. ancestral range.

“Nationwide, we are just seeing more and more people who don’t
like to cut trees,” he said. “In the eastern United States forests
have matured far too much for ruffed grouse. There are also a lot
of groups out there who are filing lawsuits to stop cutting on
public lands. It all takes a toll.”

While the ruffed grouse population will likely never reach
levels prior to 1970, Horton believes landowners can jump-start the
population, at least on the margins, by managing their forests for
younger stands of trees and by planting fruit-bearing shrubs
attractive to ruffed grouse.

“We’re talking about managing five- to 10-acre blocks of
forest,” he said. “We’re working to do that right now, and the hope
is that we can convince more landowners to look into the
possibility.”

According to Horton, southeast Minnesota is a region where both
wild turkeys and ruffed grouse can co-exist and thrive.

“If we were to introduce wild turkeys in the boreal forest of
northern Minnesota, which is out of their historical range, I would
be concerned about the potential negative affects to ruffed grouse
and other wildlife species,” he said. “But in the southeast, turkey
and grouse ranges historically overlap, which means they can both
do well.”

According to Horton, the Ruffed Grouse Society offers landowners
information packets on how to manage their forests for ruffed
grouse. Horton also says he routinely works with landowners on such
projects.

“I’m more than willing to work with landowners and take a walk
on their property to show them what can be done,” he said.

To reach Rick Horton of the Ruffed Grouse Society, e-mail him at
rgshort@uslink.net.

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