By Nick Simonson
Recently, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources released its annual spring drumming count survey for Ruffed Grouse, indicating a 57 percent increase in male birds observed on survey routes. With this significant spike, agents predict that state’s population of its most popular upland bird is nearing its 10-year peak in the decadal cycle, providing heightened opportunities for woodland hunters to bag a ruffie this fall.
While North Dakota is far better known for its sharptailed grouse hunting, it does have some established and huntable populations of ruffed grouse in the forested areas of the Turtle Mountains and Pembina Hills regions in the north central and northeastern part of the state. Due to the smaller populations of ruffed grouse, and relatively limited stretches of aspen forest, there is less of the classic “boom-and-bust” cycle observed in places like northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The survey results typically are good indicators of harvest in those states, and come from volunteers listening for the booming, lawn-mower-like sound the males give off by beating their wings rapidly in the air as a show of territoriality during the spring mating season.
“Our cycles are not like other places, because our habitat is just so limited,” explained NDG&F Upland Biologist RJ Gross, “we haven’t seen the typical 10-year cycle; it might be five, or eight, but it is never consistent,” he concluded.
While the Minnesota cycle is not completely explainable – biologists have postulated it being related to irruptions of owls and other birds of prey coming down from Canada as harsh winter conditions dictate, de-leafing of trees by cyclical populations of tent caterpillars, or even perhaps the increase in bad-tasting chemicals given off when stressed by aspen trees in their buds, which grouse frequently eat – it is very regular, with recent peaks in Minnesota coming in 1989, 1999 and 2009, and troughs in 1993, 2004 and 2013. Spring weather and snow conditions each winter also seem to influence a slightly early or late arrival of the peaks and valleys of the cycle as well.
In North Dakota, the Turtle Mountains provide the best public land hunting opportunities with a series of Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) and trail systems maintained for hunters according to Gross. While there is some national forest land in the Pembina Hills, much of the ruffed grouse habitat is found on private ground, and may require making landowner contact to get permission to hunt those areas. Gross recommends the early season, as grouse hunting becomes difficult and is often abandoned by hunters after the first significant snowfall of the season, and access becomes more difficult or competitive as big game seasons approach.
“Landowner reception to grouse hunters in those areas depends on how close you’re getting to deer season,” Gross remarked, “and you’re also dealing with elk season in some areas as well,” he concluded.
Unlike habitat for other upland species such as pheasants and partridge, North Dakota’s forested acres remain relatively stable. However, the resources necessary to manage the various ages of forest required by ruffed grouse aren’t as available to the NDG&F Dept., particularly with the nearest managing office being located in Devils Lake, a good distance away from both areas.
“We’re not losing woodland habitat; but ruffed grouse need old stands of aspen, clear cuts and new growth for their life cycle,” said Gross, “we just don’t have the staff to manage that as much as we would like,” he stated.
Ruffed grouse season is currently slated to open with sharptailed grouse and Hungarian partridge seasons on Sept. 9, upon signature of the 2017 hunting proclamation by the Governor. The daily limit in North Dakota has historically been three birds, with 12 allowed in possession.
(Featured Photo: Ruffed grouse are well known for their tail fans. Simonson Photo)