Cautious optimism heading into grouse season

Grand Rapids, Minn. – Spring drumming counts that were up 117
percent in the northwest, 44 percent in the northeast, and 43
percent across the state, suggested it could be a good fall for
grouse hunters.

But anecdotal reports since then of people in the woods
encountering fewer broods than expected have some concerned that
the season, which opens Saturday with the rest of the small-game
seasons, could be a repeat of 2007, when increased drum counts
didn’t correlate with a higher harvest.

“I’m not saying they’re not there,” said Tom Rusch, DNR area
wildlife manager in Tower. “It’s just, where are they?”

Some years when drum counts are high, wildlife officials hear an
abundance of sterling reports from department personnel who are
working in the woods.

That hasn’t been the case this year, which is why Jeff
Lightfoot, DNR regional wildlife manager in Grand Rapids, says he’s
“cautiously optimistic” about the coming season.

“We haven’t heard about extraordinary sightings of broods,” he
said. “Some years we do. This year we have not heard that, which
has me a little nervous.”

Most years, increased drum counts lead to higher harvests,
Lightfoot said. But much of what hunters encounter in the woods
depends on the success of grouse reproduction. Unlike those aimed
at pheasants or ducks, there are no formal surveys to get at grouse
numbers in the state.

“The best we have is when hunters hit the woods,” Rusch
said.

While summer as a whole was wet and cool in many places – the
temperature in the Tower area, for example, dropped into the 30s on
18 occasions in July – conditions during the peak hatching period
in June weren’t bad, Lightfoot said.

“Other than just being cool and wet, there was no late frost or
late snows or anything like that that you could point to as a
single event that might have affected either nests or newly hatched
birds,” he said.

The situation was similar in 2007, when harvest dropped from
417,000 the year before to 294,000.

“You couldn’t point to one event that year, either,” Lightfoot
said. “We were all pretty upbeat about the season, then (the birds)
didn’t show up, except in certain locations.”

Drum counts increased again in 2008. Harvest followed suit –
hunters killed 318,000 grouse last year – but DNR officials were
“disappointed” that anecdotal reports suggested hunters were seeing
fewer broods and flushing fewer birds than might have been
expected, said Dennis Simon, DNR_Wildlife Section chief.

Yet, some areas of the state offered good hunting last year, and
the hope is grouse numbers will be better over a larger part of the
state this year, Lightfoot said.

Hunters, though, could have a difficult go of it early on.

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