The Brainerd lakes area a ruffed grouse hotbed? Comparatively speaking, it appears so.
Drum numbers for the six routes in the greater Brainerd lakes area were reported in the Dispatch in mid-May. It was a positive report, with average drums per stop jumping from 1.2 in 2010 to 2.1 in 2011.
Last year’s average was slightly below the state rate of 1.5, but the climb in drum averages in the area this year was expected to at least rival the state average, which was 2.0 only two years ago.
In numbers released Monday, the DNR said observers statewide recorded 1.7 drums per stop, up slightly from last year, but lower than the Brainerd area average for the first time since 2007. And although a good bit lower than the Brainerd area averages and still down from the 2009 statewide average, ruffed grouse spring drumming counts were higher than last year across most of the bird’s range and the birds’ numbers remain healthy, the DNR said.
“The grouse population is probably still near the high end of the 10-year cycle because drumming counts this spring were between the values observed during 2009 and 2010,” said Mike Larson, DNR research scientist and grouse biologist. “Drum counts from the last three years haven’t followed the same smooth pattern as during the previous two peaks in the cycle, but relatively small changes in the index may be due to factors other than the density of grouse.”
Those factors could include weather, habitat conditions, observer ability and grouse behavior.
Ruffed grouse populations, which tend to rise and fall on a 10-year cycle, are surveyed by counting the number of male ruffed grouse heard drumming on established routes throughout the state’s forested regions. Counts vary from about 0.8 drums per stop during years of low grouse abundance to about 1.9 during years of high abundance.
Changes in drumming counts compared to those during 2010 were not statistically significant, the DNR said. The averages, however, increased 18 percent in the northeast survey region — which includes the Brainerd area and is the core and bulk of grouse range in Minnesota — to 1.9 drums per stop. They also increased 16 percent to 2.1 drums per stop in the northwest and 32 percent to 0.4 drums per stop in the southeast. Grouse counts decreased 17 percent to 0.8 drums per stop in the central hardwoods region.
Minnesota frequently is the nation’s top ruffed grouse producer. On average, 115,000 hunters harvest 545,000 ruffed grouse in Minnesota each year, making it the state’s most popular game bird. During the peak years of 1971 and 1989, hunters harvested more than 1 million ruffed grouse. Michigan and Wisconsin, which frequently field more hunters than Minnesota, round out the top three states in ruffed grouse harvest.
See GROUSE, Page 7B
One reason for the Minnesota’s status as a top grouse producer is an abundance of aspen and other ruffed grouse habitat, much of it located on county, state and national forests, where public hunting is allowed. An estimated 11.5 million of the state's 16.3 million acres of forest are grouse habitat.
For the past 62 years, DNR biologists have monitored ruffed grouse populations. This year, DNR staff and observers from 15 organizations surveyed 125 routes across the state.
Also Monday, the DNR reported that sharp-tailed grouse counts decrease slightly across the state, with counts in the northwest survey region falling approximately 16 percent in the last year and counts in the east-central region declining about 18 percent.
For sharp-tailed counts, observers look for male sharp-tails in traditional mating areas, called leks or dancing grounds. This year’s statewide average of 10.2 grouse counted per dancing ground was similar to the long-term average since 1980. Last year’s average of 10.7 grouse per dancing ground was down from the 2009 average of 13.6, which was as high as any year since 1980. During the last 25 years, the sharp-tailed grouse index has been as low as seven birds counted per dancing ground.
Overall, sharp-tail populations appear to have declined over the long term as a result of habitat deterioration. In recent years, the DNR has increased prescribed burning and shearing that keep trees from overtaking the open brush lands that sharp-tailed grouse need to thrive.
The DNR’s 2011 grouse survey report, which contains information on ruffed grouse and sharp-tailed grouse, is available online at www.mndnr.gov/hunting/grouse. Minnesota’s ruffed and sharp-tailed grouse seasons open Sept. 17.