Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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State ruffed grouse count shows 11 percent decline

St. Paul After an increase in 2003, state ruffed grouse counts
showed a double-digit decline of 11 percent statewide this spring.
Wildlife biologists with the Minnesota DNR say an unexpected drop
in ruffed grouse survey numbers may be related to inclement spring
weather during the time when counts were conducted.

According to John Erb, a wildlife research biologist in Grand
Rapids, the survey indicated an 8 percent decline in drums heard on
routes in the northwest and a 17 percent decline in the northeast,
while the north-central and central hardwoods regional counts
remained stable. In southeastern Minnesota, drumming counts
increased 17 percent.

Ruffed grouse populations are surveyed by counting the number of
ruffed grouse “drums” heard by DNR staff and volunteers along
specified routes in the state’s ruffed grouse range. Male ruffed
grouse loudly beat their wings in mating displays each spring.

For the past 55 years, DNR biologists have tracked ruffed grouse
populations as they rise and fall in an approximate 10-year cycle.
Drumming counts had increased slightly last year, prompting hope
that the cycle was on the upswing. Statewide, drumming counts were
down 11 percent compared with last year.

“It remains unclear whether the lack of an apparent increase in
northern zones represents a real change in the population or
whether it is just a result of sampling variability,” Erb said.
“Overall, winter conditions did not appear detrimental to ruffed
grouse and historic patterns suggest we should have begun the
increase in the grouse cycle. It is possible that the inclement
spring weather may have simply delayed or reduced drumming
intensity in many areas.”

Erb said that this uncertainty highlights the fact that the
drumming count survey is most valuable as a long-term trend
indicator, and that year-to-year changes should be interpreted
cautiously.

Minnesota continues as a leader in grouse hunting opportunities,
with cyclic population lows often exceeding grouse peaks in other
regions. The ruffed grouse 10-year population cycle occurs
naturally.

Sharptails increase

Erb also reported that sharp-tailed grouse numbers increased in
both the northwest and east-central parts of their range. Observers
look for male sharptails dancing on traditional mating areas,
called leks. For comparable leks monitored in 2003 and 2004,
surveyors counted 15 percent more birds in the east central range
and 31 percent more in the northwest range.

Throughout the past 15 years, sharptail population fluctuations
have mirrored the ruffed grouse population cycle. However,
superimposed on these periodic changes, sharptail populations
appear to have declined over the long haul as a result of habitat
deterioration. In recent years, the DNR has increased prescribed
burning and shearing that keeps trees from overtaking the open
brushlands that sharp-tailed grouse need to survive. In addition,
the Conservation Reserve Program appears to be benefiting
sharptails in the northwest, perhaps evidenced by the record number
of males per lek observed there this spring.

Snowshoe hares

Snowshoe hares also are counted on grouse survey routes. Counts
declined this year by 37 percent, Erb said. Snowshoe hare
populations also fluctuate on an approximate 10-year cycle. The
counts this year likely represent the beginning of a cyclic
decline.

Ruffed and sharp-tailed grouse surveys are conducted each spring
by DNR Division of Wildlife staff and other cooperators. This
spring, ruffed grouse drumming routes were completed by cooperators
including 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, Fond du Lac, White Earth, Leech Lake, Red Lake and
Grand Portage Indian bands, and numerous volunteers.

Staff and volunteers from the DNR Wildlife Division, and Agassiz
and Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuges conducted sharptail dancing
ground counts.

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