The good old days of ruffed grouse hunting may never be seen again in the north woods.
Some biologists believe that grouse hunters in Minnesota and northern Wisconsin may never again see the kind of grouse populations that occurred 40 and 50 years ago.
The grouse population will continue to fluctuate on a roughly 10-year cycle, they say, but changing forest management and other factors may mean overall lower grouse numbers.
"I don't think ruffs will ever rise to their former levels," said Bill Berg, who led ruffed grouse research for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources during his nearly 30-year career. The wildlife biologist, who lives in Bovey, retired in 2001.
Fred Strand, longtime wildlife biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in Superior, concurs.
"We're losing grouse habitat, particularly aspen, across the entire Midwest," Strand said.
Records of ruffed grouse drumming counts and hunter harvests show peaks in the ruffed grouse population were highest in 1951 and 1971, when hunters killed 1.42 million and nearly 1.3 million birds, respectively. Subsequent high harvests have been less pronounced, reaching 941,000 in 1980, 1.2 million in 1989 and 946,000 in 1998.
"In the future, it's going to be fewer birds, less high-quality habitat and less (hunter) access to the forest," said Rick Horton, regional biologist with the Ruffed Grouse Society in Grand Rapids.
When the grouse population peaked in 10-year intervals from 1950 to 1970, the northern forest was a different world, Horton said.
"The whole world was young aspen in 1950," he said. "Plus, there were much fewer hunters. In 1970, we had OK habitat, but few predators. Fur prices were high. We had a lot of trappers."
While a lot of aspen is still being cut, it isn't being clear-cut in large blocks, the way it once was. Loggers more often cut selectively or leave residual timber -- typically 10 to 12 trees per acre, according to Wayne Brandt, executive director of Minnesota Forest Industries.
"I think it's pretty clear that many of the public agencies have gone away from aspen management that would maximize grouse habitat," Brandt said. "Whether or not that's the right decision is for others to decide."
Mike Larson, grouse research biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said grouse numbers did not rise as he thought they might have when aspen cutting was at its peak in the past two or three decades.
"There's a missing component there I don't understand," Larson said.
Thick stands of aspen afford grouse refuge from hawks and great-horned owls during nesting and drumming. Leaving some mature trees after logging actually works against grouse, offering good perches for avian predators.
National forests in both states also are managing their timber differently than they once did.
"National forests, when they re-do their plans, in my career, it's always been managing for less aspen in the future," Strand said.
Jim Sanders, supervisor of Superior National Forest, said a new forest plan, approved last fall, will take the forest in a new direction.
"We are not into pure aspen management," Sanders said. "We're going to continue to manage for aspen, but we have responsibilities for all the wildlife species. We're going to create more diverse habitat. I think grouse will be well taken care of. Will they be at the habitat level they had in the '50s and '60s? Probably not."
THE PREDATOR FACTOR
Berg, who also surveyed furbearers during his DNR career, noted that animals that prey on grouse are more numerous than they once were. Fisher, marten and fox are much more plentiful.
Fox have become more numerous as the timberwolf population has grown from a few hundred to more than 3,500 in Minnesota. Wolves don't tolerate coyotes, which don't tolerate foxes well. With fewer coyotes, the fox population has grown.
Marten and fisher have enjoyed excellent comebacks in Minnesota, though marten are uncommon in Wisconsin. Both prey on grouse.
"Fishers were gone for over 50 years. Now they're widespread and common," Strand said.
And there's danger from above for grouse, too.
"Things like goshawks and great-horned owls are more numerous," Strand said. "We've helped restore them and protect them. The days of 'chicken hawks' being shot are gone."
Other factors may be affecting grouse numbers as well. Hunters have more access to the forest than ever, with more forest roads probing the woods and four-wheelers to ride.
"Before the days of ATVs," Berg said, "most interior forest areas were 'grouse refuges,' where few hunters ever got to."
But as government agencies grapple with the issue of ATVs and four-wheel-drive use on forest roads, Horton sees more motorized restrictions coming.
"People think of ATVs," Horton said, "but I hunt with a pickup. I drive down a tote road until I find a good spot. In many places, I can't do that now. If it's not (an official forest) system road, it's not legal to be there."
Hunters who use dogs are probably more effective than they once were, Berg said. Training techniques have made dogs more efficient, he said.
Two more factors could be affecting grouse numbers over the long term. One is West Nile virus. Seventeen percent of grouse examined at the 2003 National Grouse and Woodcock Hunt, held each October in Grand Rapids by the Ruffed Grouse Society, tested positive for West Nile virus antibodies. That means they had been exposed to the disease but had resisted it.
"What we don't know," Horton said, "is how many were exposed and died from it."
Finally, Berg wonders if climate change is affecting grouse. Grouse populations in southeastern Minnesota were once the highest in the state. Now, they're the lowest.
"The Minnesota ruffs planted years back in Missouri, Oklahoma and the southern Appalachians are doing poorly, as are those native birds in southern Wisconsin," Berg said.
Despite all of these concerns, biologists say Minnesota and Wisconsin will remain the leading states for grouse hunting in the nation. But the banner high years of the 1950s and 1970s may not be repeated.
"Sometimes, we expect the old days to come back again, but I don't think they will," Strand said.
Larson, with the Minnesota DNR, is less pessimistic.
"I understand the factors people are talking about," he said, "and I do share the same concerns for problems in the future. But due to uncertainties on the large scale, I'm not as likely to say that's a probable outcome."Duluth News Tribune