Tuesday, January 31st, 2023
Tuesday, January 31st, 2023

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Grouse counts up for second straight year

By Joe
Albert
Associate Editor

Grand Rapids, Minn. – When ruffed grouse counts rose last
spring, DNR researcher Mike Larson took care not to whip up a
section of the hunting crowd that was in need of good news.

But privately, he believed it marked the beginning of an
increase in the bird’s 10-year population cycle. Turns out he was
right.

‘In two quick years we went from the bottom to halfway back up
toward the top – this is definitely hitting the good half of the
cycle here,’ Larson said.

In addition to ruffed grouse, prairie chicken and sharp-tailed
grouse counts also were up.

‘It was nice, good news for all three species to have noticeable
increases,’ he said. ‘We certainly expected it with ruffed grouse.
With prairie birds, it’s a little more hit or miss.’

After four years at the low end, grouse numbers now have risen
two years in a row. In the Northeast Region, counts jumped 40
percent – from 1.1 to 1.5 drums per stop. Counts in the other three
regions were similar to 2006. In the state’s forested region, mean
drumming counts per stop were 1.3, up from one drum per stop last
year and 0.8 in 2005.

Previous counts at the peak of the 10-year cycle have been 1.8
and two drums per stop, and 0.7 and 0.9 at the low end.

‘We can keep our hopes up that it will be peaking from, say,
2008 to 2010,’ Larson said. ‘I wouldn’t expect it to be coming back
down until 2010 or later.’

Ruffed grouse harvest has ranged from about 150,000 to about 1.4
million, and averages about 500,000 birds. Harvest was between
about 250,000 and 350,000 between 2001 and 2003; about 200,000 in
2004 and 2005.

Larson expects the population increase between 2005 and 2006 to
also be evident when last fall’s harvest figures are available.

Roadside drum counts are used each spring to monitor the ruffed
grouse population. As part of them, observers drove along 131
routes in April and May and counted the number of drums heard at
designated stops.

The results don’t reveal the number of grouse in the state;
rather, they’re an index of what’s going on.

‘It’s just an index to give us an idea of the direction the
population is moving, whether it’s up or down,’ Larson said.

The 10-year cycle dominates the state’s population of ruffed
grouse, though it’s not entirely understood why that fluctuation
occurs. It’s thought that natural circumstances – predators and
weather, among them – influence the cycle.

The year-to-year population variations that hunters and others
notice is the result of the cycle, while things like habitat
improvement are long-term investments that help maintain ruffed
grouse populations into the future.

The Northeast Region, where grouse counts jumped 40 percent and
numbers likely are higher than they were between 2001 and 2006,
includes most of the prime ruffed grouse habitat, as well as most
of the hunting destinations. The other three regions, by contrast,
are at the periphery of the grouse range and hunters may not notice
increases in those places.

‘It’s a fairly limited portion of the range, but populations out
there have not fluctuated as dramatically as in the core of the
ruffed grouse range,’ Larson said.

Sharptails, chickens rise

Sharp-tailed grouse counts statewide were as high as they’ve
been since 1980. That reflects increases in both the East-Central
and Northwest regions.

Brushland habitat management likely has played a role in
sharptail populations that are as high as they’ve been in more than
20 years, Larson said.

The number of male prairie chickens and leks was up about 45
percent from last year.

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