Habitat losses, bird declines lead to sharptail proposal

By Tim Spielman
Editor

Grand Rapids, Minn. — Minnesota wildlife officials acknowledge that it’s not hunting that’s led to a continued decline in the number of sharp-tailed grouse in east-central Minnesota. Rather, they say, it’s habitat loss. But in an effort to protect young sharpies and hens, the agency is proposing a shortened hunting season for a portion of the state beginning this fall.

“It’s important to maintain hunting opportunity,” said Dave Olfelt, DNR northeast regional wildlife manager in Grand Rapids. For some, sharptail hunting is an important part of their hunting heritage, he added, and it’s unlikely hunting has much effect on the sharptail population.

According to the proposal: “If approved for 2017, the sharp-tailed grouse season in a part of east-central Minnesota and east of a line from Floodwood to the northern border would be open Saturday, Oct. 14, through Thursday, Nov. 30. In the rest of the open hunting zone, the season would run from Saturday, Sept. 16, through Nov. 30.”

Olfelt said research has shown that sharptails are more vulnerable to hunting pressure during the early portion of the season. Last year, the statewide hunt ran Sept. 17 through Nov. 30.

In the east-central portion of the state, sharptail hunting primarily is available in Aitkin, Carlton, and southern St. Louis counties. They’ve also shown up recently on leks (dancing grounds) at St. Croix State Park in Pine County. But the population faces greater habitat limitations than their brethren in northwestern Minnesota, Olfelt said.

The heyday for sharptails in the east-central area was during the mid-20th century, according to Olfelt. It was then that landowners cleared ground and planted small grains, had dairy operations, and when “monstrous” fires cleared brush for the open space-loving sharptail.

Now, private landowners largely provide habitat that’s more friendly for deer than for sharptails, and fire suppression has largely limited the good that the natural event can accomplish for certain species.

The DNR, however, admits that’s it’s tough to determine the level of hunting pressure in east-central Minnesota. Likely most of the state’s harvest occurs in the northwest, with a few dedicated sharptail hunters – as well as ruffed grouse hunters – collecting a few in the east.

In recent years, the DNR estimates about 5,000 people hunt sharptails in the state, and the harvest has been fewer than 10,000 birds. The Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society says  in 1949, state hunters killed about 150,000 sharptails. The number shrunk to about 50,000 by the 1970s.

Olfelt said wildlife manager, researchers, and sharptail aficionados met several times to discuss the situation in the east-central area.

“Some said to shut (the hunting season there) down, while others said that it’s never been shown that (regulated) hunting has driven a population to the brink,” Olfelt said. “And there were others in between. Everybody acknowledges that habitat is the driver (of their population).”

Moreover, the creation of sharptail habitat, it’s generally agreed, would have the most dramatic, positive effect on the bird’s population. Olfelt said work has been done by the DNR and other groups – the Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society and Pheasants Forever, for example – to improve conditions for sharptails.

Meanwhile, a meeting regarding the sharptail hunting proposal was held earlier this week in St. Paul. A second public meeting is scheduled for May 9, from 7-9 p.m., at Cloquet High School.

People who want to provide input but cannot attend the meetings may offer input through Thursday, June 1, online at mndnr.gov/sharptailedgrouse or via mail.

To obtain a written copy of the input survey, contact the DNR Information Center by telephone at 1-888-646-6367 or email jason.abraham@state.mn.us. Written comments may be emailed, or mailed to Sharp-Tailed Grouse Comments, DNR Section of Wildlife, 500 Lafayette Road, St. Paul, MN, 55155-4007.

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