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Hunting Upland Bird Wisconsin

Our Grouse Hunting Forecast

September 30th, 2010 0

Mother Nature really threw hunters a curve ball last year, but that may be the least of our problems with ruffs. Will Wisconsin ever see another “real” peak in the population cycle?


Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Grouse hunters and surfers have a lot in common. Both are happy to settle for modest swells while waiting for the next big wave. Wisconsin’s ruffed grouse hunters should have a better season this fall than last, but that might not be saying much. Last year, hunters endured one of the least memorable seasons ever, according to reports from across the north. A cold, wet spring in 2004 hampered recruitment, so hunters encountered mostly adult birds — when they found birds at all. The 10-year population cycle probably hit bottom last fall, so things can only get better.

It may take awhile for improvement to make much difference in the coverts, however. When grouse numbers are low, a population increase begins slowly for a year or two, then snowballs to reach a new peak before plummeting again. For now, grouse hunters will have to ride the swell for what it’s worth and wait for the next wave.

Unfortunately, that next wave is not likely to be a tsunami. While grouse are still the state’s most abundant forest game-bird species, their numbers have gradually declined over the past several decades as their habitat has diminished. Each of the last four population peaks has been lower than the one before it, and it does not look like that trend will reverse itself any time soon.

LAST HUNTING SEASON
Results from questionnaires sent to hunters after last season were still being tabulated as of this writing, but anecdotal reports suggest that hunters encountered fewer birds last fall than biologists had hoped for. Cool, rainy weather in May and June of 2004 took its toll on young birds, and brood observations were well below expected levels. With young birds scarce, hunters found mostly adults in the coverts, which made for some tough hunting, according to Ruffed Grouse Society (RGS) western Great Lakes regional biologist Gary Zimmer.

“Hunting success was spotty at best last fall,” said Zimmer. “Most birds in the woods last year were adults, which run ahead of dogs and often flush wild. I did see pockets of birds and heard reports that other hunters had the same experience. I expect that 2004 was the bottom of the cycle here in Wisconsin.”

Andrea Mezera, acting Department of Natural Resources upland wildlife ecologist, echoed Zimmer’s report.

“Hunting was mediocre last year,” Mezera said. “Hunters saw birds in smaller pockets of good habitat. The last population peak was in 1999, and we’ve been on a decline ever since. We expected a rebound last year, but the cold, wet spring had an impact that might carry over to this year as well.”

DNR wildlife biologist Ron Eckstein of Rhinelander had the most positive report.

“Hunting around here was surprisingly good last fall,” Eckstein said. “I heard more positive reports than negative ones. The season turned out better than I thought it would, based on my own hunts and the people I talked to.”

Hunter survey results from 2003 show a decline in hunter numbers from the year before, perhaps because hunters knew the cycle was near its low ebb. Those hunters bagged more birds than the year before, however. An estimated 103,466 hunters bagged 320,130 grouse in 2003, while 106,847 hunters bagged 259,163 ruffs in 2002. Hunters pursuing grouse outnumbered those who hunted other small-game species, as is traditionally the case. Those hunters reported bagging .45 grouse per day afield in 2003. The top counties were Price, Oneida and Marinette.

IMPACT OF WINTER
Grouse losses over the winter depend on a number of factors. Grouse are well adapted to cold weather, but they do best when there is deep, fluffy snow for roosting. They actually dive or burrow into snowbanks where the snow and their feathers insulate them from the cold. If you look for them, you will occasionally find grouse-sized holes in the snow with tracks and wing prints leading away from them. A pile of worm-like droppings in the hole means a grouse spent the night there. You may even flush a grouse from a snow bank, which is one of the most startling experiences you’ll ever have.

If snow develops a crust, grouse can’t use it for roosting. When abrupt weather changes cause a crust to form quickly, it can trap roosting birds and kill them. My dogs once found a dead grouse trapped under a crust. Its icy coffin was full of droppings and its breast was emaciated, so it must have been trapped for some time before it succumbed.

Snow cover was abundant across the north last winter. In some areas, there was a light crust most of the winter, which prevented snow-roosting by grouse. Elsewhere, snow conditions were reportedly good for roosting.

Predators — primarily goshawks and great-horned owls — can also take their toll in winter. Grouse are most vulnerable to predation when out feeding. If there is snow cover, grouse feed by budding for a short time in aspen and birch trees, and hazel and alder bushes early in the morning and late in the afternoon. This briefly exposes grouse to predators. If there is no snow cover, they feed on the ground for longer periods, which makes them even more vulnerable.

Great-horned owls are mainly resident birds that stay in Wisconsin year-round. If a pair sets up housekeeping in a grouse woods over the winter, they may put a serious dent in the local grouse population.

There are some resident goshawks, but migrants from Canada do the most damage. Goshawks prey mainly on grouse and snowshoe hares. They fly south to the Great Lakes states by the thousands when Canadian hare and grouse populations plummet. Research suggests that the periodic decline in grouse numbers in the Great Lakes states is keyed to this goshawk invasion, which has historically peaked in 1972, 1982 and 1992.

Dave Evans, who operates the raptor banding station at Hawk Ridge in Duluth, Minn., said the goshawk invasion didn’t happen this time around. In 1982, for instance, he trapped and banded 1,500 goshawks, but in 2002 he caught less than 100, which is about average for non-invasion years. Goshawk numbers were low the last two winters, as well, Evans said, and they should not have had a significant impact on grouse numbers.

“I think the grouse and hare cycles in Canada got out of whack,” Evans said. “It used to be the grouse would crash, then the hares would crash a year later, then the goshawks would come south. But I don’t think that’s happening anymore.”

Last winter, there was a well-documented invasion of northern hawk owls, boreal owls and gr
eat grey owls from Canada, but they likely did not have much impact on grouse numbers, Evans said.

“All three species feed mainly on small rodents,” Evans said. “Boreal and hawk owls wouldn’t have any impact on grouse. Great grays might take an occasional grouse, but that would be rare.”

The upshot is that most of the grouse that remained in the north after last fall probably made it through the winter, but there just weren’t that many to begin with.

HABITAT TRENDS
Grouse numbers will continue to rise and fall in a cyclical pattern, but the long-term outlook suggests that grouse will continue to decline because of habitat loss. Before the northern forests were logged at the turn of the 20th century, grouse were more abundant in southern Wisconsin, where a mix of brush and openings provided good cover. When the north was logged, grouse numbers skyrocketed in the cutover.

“What gave us our aspen here in the north was almost a ‘nuclear’ event,” said Ron Eckstein. “A combination of unregulated timber harvest and million-acre forest fires from the 1890s to the 1930s eliminated the pine and much of the hardwood forest, and aspen sprung up to replace both.”

Grouse flourish in young aspen, but as the aspen begins to mature, it becomes less desirable. Forest fires and clearcutting are the only ways to rejuvenate aging aspen stands. Sportsmen’s dollars and Pittman-Robertson excise tax monies funded aggressive aspen clearcutting in the 1970s and ’80s, and the forest-products industry has continued this aspen management, maintaining good grouse habitat across much of the north.

Still, the aspen contingent of the northern forest is slowly eroding, said Eckstein.

“Some of the remaining old aspen now grows along roads, streams and lakes, and we can’t clear cut those places anymore,” Eckstein said. “So we are slowly losing our aspen. It was once 40 percent of the landscape, and it will dwindle slowly to maybe 20 percent.”

That is plenty of aspen to maintain good numbers of grouse, Eckstein said, especially since many aspen stands are so inaccessible they never get hunted. These places act as sanctuaries, where grouse are relatively undisturbed, and serve as reservoirs from which grouse move out into new habitat when their numbers increase. One way to create more hunting opportunities, Eckstein said, might be to make these isolated aspen stands more accessible to hunters by punching roads into them.

Grouse are far from overhunted in the north, Eckstein said. That may not be the case elsewhere in the state. Take the southwest, for example. Twenty years ago, grouse were abundant in the brush that took over abandoned hill-country farms, but not anymore, according to Scott Walter, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin-Richland Center. Walter is studying the decline by trapping and radio-tagging grouse, then looking at the habitat they use. Now in the second year of a four-year study, he has found some interesting results.

“Most of the woodlands in the southwest do not provide good grouse cover and don’t hold grouse,” Walter said. “About 85 percent of our birds use about 7 percent of the study area — thick brushy cover. When small farms were abandoned and cows were taken out of the woods, grouse cover was everywhere. Now, it’s basically in small, linear patches along field edges and a few small fields that are still reverting to brush, and that’s it.”



Walter’s study area comprises some 6,000 acres. He and his students check about 75 traps to catch one grouse. Last fall, they had radios on 21 grouse, 14 of which survived the winter. Surprisingly, not a single bird was taken by hunters, and Walter has not encountered a grouse hunter in two years of tramping the hills for his research.
 

Walter’s study area comprises some 6,000 acres. He and his students check about 75 traps to catch one grouse. Last fall, they had radios on 21 grouse, 14 of which survived the winter. Surprisingly, not a single bird was taken by hunters, and Walter has not encountered a grouse hunter in two years of tramping the hills for his research.

“Twenty years ago, we had a lot of grouse in this area,” Walter said. “Drumming counts here were consistently as high as or higher than those in northern Wisconsin during the peak years. Now, we have very few grouse, and it’s not worth hunting them anymore. Most folks around here go north to hunt grouse.”

The brush has changed to mature forest, which does not support grouse. Still, there is a tremendous opportunity to manage for grouse habitat, Walter said. He encourages landowners to clear cut remnant stands of aspen and plant wildlife shrubs rather than solid stands of pine and hardwoods. If such changes are not made, he fears within the next 40 years that grouse will disappear from a landscape where 50-flush days were common only two decades ago.

BUDGET CONCERNS
By the time you read this, the state Legislature should have set hunting license fees for 2006. Hunters and legislators have been reluctant to support fee increases, but without them, many wildlife programs may fall by the wayside.

One of them was a 37-year census of grouse numbers on the 4,200-acre Stone Lake property, which was discontinued this year because research personnel at Rhinelander have dropped from five to one full-time biologist and one retiree. Each spring, researchers would walk the entire property three times, counting drumming males and marking their drumming logs with maps and GPS coordinates.

Keith McCaffery, a retired DNR wildlife research biologist, had carried on this study and other work as an unpaid volunteer since his retirement about a decade ago. He points out that this long-term study has proven that grouse do better when aspen is managed in frequent small clearcuts rather than occasional large cuts. He was tempted to continue the study this year on one small portion of the Stone Lake property, but decided against it.

“Forty-two-hundred acres is already a small postage stamp to represent 15,000 square miles of habitat in northern Wisconsin,” McCaffery said. “Get it down to my 830 acres, and all you need is one pair of resident owls to set up in there and it can change the picture entirely.”

Another fee — the proposed ruffed grouse and woodcock stamp — was still being debated by a legislative committee as of this writing. If enacted, it will make funds available for such work.

Private funding, much of it from the Ruffed Grouse Society, has picked up the slack left by dwindling state funds. Gary Zimmer points out that RGS has funded a 1,000-acre grouse habitat demonstration area at Mead Wildlife Area in Marathon, Wood and Portage counties. Other projects include habitat work and new trails on 7,000 acres of Oconto County forest land, and smaller projects in Eau Claire, Marathon and Price county forests and the Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest.

PROSPECTS FOR THIS FALL
Spring drumming counts were just getting under way as of this writing. Biologists assumed there would be fewer birds this spring than last because 2004 was a poor recruitment year. You can get a good sense of this fall’s hunting prospects by remembering the weather we had in late May and early June. The warmer and drier, the better the survival rate for chicks and the more birds you will see this fall.

No matter how many birds are available, you’ll see more in a down-cycle year by hunting the best cover because grouse tend to occupy this first. In northern Wisconsin, look for young, dense aspen stands with plenty of vertical stems. This is hard for avian predators, but easy for short-winged grouse to negotiate. As bird numbers increase, they spill out into less-desirable cover types where their survival rates are lower.

County forests remain one of the best places to hunt grouse. Twenty-nine of Wisconsin’s northern and western counties manage nearly 2.4 million acres of forest land, most of which is open to public hunting. Many counties arrange timber sales in aspen forests with wildlife in mind, and some maintain hunter walking trails, parking lots and other services aimed at hunters. Price County, which calls itself the Ruffed Grouse Capital of the World, does more such work and promotes itself more heavily than the rest, but others might be better bets for hunting because they receive less pressure. The Wisconsin County Forests Association’s Web site at
www.wisconsincountyforests.com lists acreage and contact information for free maps, and other information.

Private forest cropland (FCL) is another good choice. Such land is managed for eventual harvest, and any that contains young aspen is a good bet for grouse. FCL landowners pay a low property tax rate and must allow public access for hunting and fishing. The best source for FCL information is a series of 10 publications called Roger B’s Hunters Guides, which cover the entire state and list FCL land and public lands open to hunting.

Biologists were sanguine about hunting prospects this fall. Andrea Mezera sums up the situation this way:

“Don’t expect huge numbers of birds,” she said. “Scout around for good habitat because that’s where you’ll find them.”

But serious grouse hunters don’t mind a challenge. After all, that’s why they hunt grouse instead of something easier, like pheasants.

(Editor’s note: Roger B’s Hunters Guides, along with the author’s 60-minute video Field to Feast, Ruffed Grouse and an assortment of wild-game cookbooks, are available at
(www.dansmalloutdoors.com.)

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