Ruffed grouse numbers have increased 13 percent statewide, according to DNR drumming route surveys.
While encouraging, the surveys can be deceiving. The population gain is mostly due to a 33 percent increase in the central hardwoods zone and a 50 percent increase in the southeastern zone, two zones that typically have lower counts. The northeast, northwest and north central zones -- the core of Minnesota's grouse habitat, all should have about the same number of birds as last year, and hunters began to find out just how many when the season opened this weekend.
Drumming surveys count only male grouse that survived winter. The real impact of a bad winter isn't in grouse killed but in the condition of hens entering breeding season. If hens have few reserves for egg development then egg numbers and chick survival drop. By all reports the hatch was excellent, but hunters won't know just how many birds are in the woods until the season begins next Saturday (Sept. 13).
"Minnesota offers reasonably good grouse hunting even when the birds are at the bottom of their 10-year population cycle," said Rick Horton, a biologist with the Ruffed Grouse Society. "Our worst years are better than many states' best years."
Half of the aspen forests in the eastern U.S. are in Minnesota. More than 65 percent of our forests are in public or industrial ownership and open to public hunting, Horton said.
So where should hunters look? The drumming survey measures drums per stop (d/s). The more drums heard per stop, the higher the grouse population. Bemidji northward had the highest index at 1.2 d/s. The north central zone around Grand Rapids had 1.0 d/s) and the central zone around Brainerd 0.8 d/s. The northeast zone and southeast zone both had 0.6 d/s.
Different paper companies manage their aspen in different ways. Horton recommends focusing on tax forfeited lands managed by the counties, then state lands, then U.S. Forest Service property.
"In any case," Horton said, "you want to seek dense young aspen or other hardwoods. In the central zone look for dogwood patches where the berries are ripe. In the north look for tag alder swamps and hunt the edges. Get off of the trails and into the cover. Bring a compass, but don't trust it if you hunt near the Iron Range."
With those encouraging words let grouse season begin.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.