2009 Badger State Grouse Guide

Might be a good idea to pick up an extra box of shells — or three — before the fall grouse opener this year. With grouse numbers nearing their 10-year peak, the shooting should be superb! (September 2009)

Wisconsin grouse hunters logged nearly 850,000 days afield last season and harvested more than 493,000 grouse.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Dust off the upland boots, sort those low-brass shells and dig the shooting gloves out of storage! Grouse season opens this month, and all indications point to a banner year — very likely the best in a decade.

Most grouse biologists believe the next peak of the 10-year cycle in Wisconsin will occur next year, although there is a possibility that the grouse population will peak in 2009. Either way, there will be plenty of birds in the coverts this fall. Most of them will be naïve juveniles, a boon to gunners and dogs alike.

If predictions about the grouse cycle prove true, this might be the year to start a new grouse dog. A young pup needs plenty of encounters to learn how to handle the king of game birds. Grouse are pretty skittish, and a dog that crowds them will bump more birds than one that knows just how close to get to them.

LAST FALL'S HUNT

Last year, the number of small-game hunters declined 0.7 percent from the previous year. This was the sixth decrease in license sales in the last seven years. The number of people who bought small-game, sportsman, senior citizen, non-resident small-game, five-day non-resident small-game or conservation patron licenses decreased from 276,603 in 2006-07 to 274,582 in 2007-08. Those hunters spent approximately 2.8 million days in the field during the 2007-08 small-game season. The total number of days spent pursuing small game decreased by 1.8 percent during the 2007-08 season from previous years' totals.

About 53 percent of upland bird hunters use dogs. The most popular breed was a Labrador retriever, but various pointers, setters and spaniels also ranked high. Dog owners spent an average of 49.7 days training dogs and hunting with them. The mean annual bill for dog maintenance was $586.69. Those numbers are comparable to last year's.

As in past years, 37.8 percent of hunters hit the woods in pursuit of ruffed grouse, more than those after any other small-game species. They spent more time at it, too, logging 845,390 days afield. They shot an estimated 493,637 grouse, up a whopping 25 percent from the previous year. That comes out to about .59 birds per day. The top grouse harvest counties were Price, Sawyer and Forest.

Anecdotal reports from biologists, most of who hunt, confirmed these numbers. Brian Dhuey, who compiles the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' wildlife surveys, hunted in North Dakota more than Wisconsin last fall, but on the few trips he made up north, he saw plenty of birds.

"I also saw a lot of non-resident hunters," Dhuey says. An abundance of trucks with tags from Kentucky, Tennessee or other Southern states is usually another sign the grouse population is up.

Dhuey also reports seeing lots of snowshoe hares last fall. These critters follow a cycle of abundance and decline similar to that of ruffed grouse. Biologists believe the hare cycle precedes the grouse cycle by a year or two.

Ron Eckstein, a WDNR biologist stationed in Rhinelander, reports that hunting in the northeast was better last fall than in 2007. "Hunters reported seeing more birds in Oneida County," he says.

Over in the northwest, Todd Naas has a similar report.

"Some hunters said they flushed as many grouse last season as they ever have," Naas says. "In other areas, however, reports were spotty. Overall, though, last year was a great improvement over 2007.

In central Wisconsin, WDNR biologist Wayne Hall says there were definitely more birds in the coverts last fall.

"Broods broke up early," Hall says. "So hunters had lots of single flushes."

Still, hunters expected to see more birds, Hall says. Cyclic lows appear to be more pronounced in central Wisconsin than in the north, he says, so the recovery may take longer there.

WINTER'S IMPACT ON BIRDS

Deep snow and cold temperatures wreak havoc on some wildlife species, but these are exactly the conditions under which grouse thrive, and there were plenty of both last winter. Across the north, biologists said last winter was kind to grouse, a bird that roosts in deep snow.

"Last winter's weather was good for grouse," says Eckstein. "It was very cold early in the winter, but we had fluffy roosting snow from December through mid-February."

Both Eckstein and Naas mentioned a period from mid-February to early March when a thaw created a crust on the snow, but it didn't seem to hurt the grouse because there were not many avian predators around.

DRUMMING & BROOD COUNTS

Each spring, biologists drive prescribed transects on rural roads in grouse country, stopping frequently to listen for drumming males. These surveys have been conducted for more than 40 years, and they provide a good index of grouse numbers. Last year's drumming counts increased 7 percent statewide. This was the third year in a row that drumming counts increased, an indication that the cycle is still on the upswing.

This year, the drumming counts were underway at the time of this writing. Dhuey had received 30 of the 90 transect reports, most of them at the last year's level or higher. Drumming surveys begin in mid-April in the south and in early May in the north. Eckstein reports that cold weather delayed the start of many surveys in the north. Although this is not a measurable survey, he did say that WDNR field staff reported seeing more grouse along the roads.

At two research areas — Sandhill in Wood County and Stone Lake in Oneida County — researchers on foot try to count the actual number of drummers. The Stone Lake survey was delayed by a foot of snow, but at Sandhill, Wayne Hall reports 45 drummers in 2009 on the 1,600 acres, compared with 43 in 2008. Weather delayed the Stone Lake survey, so there were no results to report. Hall, who conducts the Sandhill surveys, says drumming got off to a slow start due to cool weather in late April.

"Drummers pause for a longer period between drums when it's windy and cool," says Hall. "Good drumming sites are so limited that when grouse numbers are high, the birds are forced into undesirable sites. If a drummer gets picked off a quality

site, another bird will be ready to move in."

Hall assumes predators key in on drumming logs, but a good site has protection from dense vertical stems. In addition to drumming logs, he finds interesting things while walking the property, which is completely surrounded by a high fence. This past spring, Hall found six dead bucks, all of which had already shed their antlers and all of which were between 5 and 7 years old, based on tooth analysis. He thinks coyotes took down those bucks, because there are no wolves on the property.

"We had only seven nights above zero (degrees) in January," Hall says, "and a total of 53 nights below zero all winter, compared with 43 in 2007-08."

Brood production is measured by another index, based on summer observations made by WDNR staffers. Despite some unusual weather, which ranged from severe flooding in the south to drought in the northeast, grouse managed to pull off good broods, according to Hull. Brood production statewide was up 12 percent over 2007, in terms of both the number of broods seen per observer and brood size. Brood production for this year was not available at press time.

HABITAT TRENDS & OTHER RESEARCH

Wisconsin still has lots of grouse — more, in fact, than probably any state besides Minnesota and perhaps Michigan. Over the long haul, however, grouse numbers have gradually declined because of loss of habitat. In the Upper Great Lakes region, habitat boils down to varying age-classes of aspen. As aspen stands age and are replaced by other trees, grouse numbers suffer.

At Sandhill Wildlife Area, for instance, the highest grouse numbers were logged in the late 1970s and early '80s, Hall says. That's when the area had the most aspen. Now, there is a lot of oak in the mix. In Jackson County, aspen is being replaced by jack and white pine, which is not good grouse habitat.

Hall said that more timber sales would help grouse habitat on public land in central Wisconsin, but there are blocks of land that will not likely be harvested because they are surrounded by marsh and inaccessible to commercial tree-cutting equipment. Two years ago, Hall spent $6,000 to have loggers cut 20 acres of aspen in one of these spots and leave it lying in the woods.

"Some of those logs would have been useable in chip-board operations," Hall said. "But there aren't any in this area today. If you let aspen go too long, it loses its commercial value and will not regenerate."

The value of this management work to grouse and other wildlife species can't be overstated. Hall says that every drummer he found this spring, for instance, was on a log in 10- to 15-acre hand-sheared aspen and alder sites that were cut in the last eight to 13 years.

In the northwest, there have been a lot of changes in the forest industry, Naas says. A chipping plant located at Ino is being converted to a heating-pellet plant, for instance. Biofuel harvest and whole-tree wood chipping are also on the horizon.

Naas reports quite a bit of timber harvest on county-forest land in Bayfield and Ashland counties, but not much on the Chequamegon/Nicolet National Forest. Naas said the WDNR mows trails and wildlife openings on state land on a three- to five-year rotation to keep them open. Bayfield County alone has more than 600 such forest openings. These range from natural frost pockets to log landings and other manmade openings.

Some county forestry departments do the same kind of work, and some will provide maps to hunters.

The most exciting work is being funded by the Ruffed Grouse Society.

RGS dollars have paid for numerous habitat projects in Wisconsin to date, and there are some new programs currently under way, according to Gary Zimmer, senior regional biologist with RGS, who is based in Laona. Among others, Zimmer cites new projects in Iron, Ashland, Langlade, Wood and Fond du Lac counties.

"These areas are all open to hunting. Some have decent grouse habitat already," Zimmer says. "This work will target habitat that is in decline. In three to four years, they will provide good hunting."

Completed projects are listed on www.ruffedgrousesociety.org. Some information on the RGS site is open to members only. The general locations of habitat work across the state are available to the general public.

2009 HUNTING OUTLOOK

So what can hunters expect to find in the coverts this fall? Plenty of birds in the best habitat and more birds than in recent years in marginal habitat. Hull thinks we will be at or close to the peak of the grouse cycle this fall. In either case, there should be more birds in the coverts this year than last. Hull expects good to excellent harvest opportunities in the north. Eckstein and Zimmer also say hunters should expect another increase in grouse numbers.

"Target young forest habitat in the upper third of Wisconsin and you'll find birds," says Zimmer. "If you can find good cover, you'll find grouse."

All of the northern counties have some aspen habitat under management. Check with county forestry departments for locations of five- to 10-year-old aspen timber sales. Some counties provide maps of these areas, with walking trails marked. Top counties include Douglas, Bayfield, Ashland, Iron, Sawyer, Price and Forest.

In central Wisconsin, Hall echoes Zimmer's advice and recommends hunters check out Meadow Valley and Wood County WMAs. Clark, Rusk, Marathon, Portage and Langlade counties have extensive county forest land with plenty of aspen.

In southwest Wisconsin, however, prospects are rather bleak, according to UW-Richland Center biologist Scott Walter.

"The grouse study I completed in 2007 strongly suggests that the days of good grouse hunting in southwest Wisconsin are a thing of the past," he says. "I know very few people who still hunt grouse south of Monroe County. Grouse in most of this area are seen infrequently enough nowadays that few people go grouse hunting any longer."

This is quite a dramatic change from the 1980s, Walter says, when this area was a prime destination for serious grouse hunters.

"Seeing a grouse during a deer drive today is often worthy of mention," he says. "There are still a few pockets with decent numbers of birds, but these are rather far-flung, and most folks I talk to prefer not to shoot grouse, recognizing their relative scarcity."

Walter's study, in which he put radios on hundreds of grouse and followed their movements, showed that the annual survival rate for males in the southwest is 46 percent, but that of females is only 16 percent. Males tend to stay in dense thickets year 'round, Walter explains, but females move from one thicket to another in spring looking for males and nest sites, making them easy prey for avian predators.

Over the past 75

years or so, southwest Wisconsin's landscape has changed dramatically. Abandoned farms have become overgrown with brush. When that first happened, grouse numbers skyrocketed. Now, however, those same brushy thickets have matured into open hardwood wood lots — great for turkeys and deer but not good for grouse.

"You can walk a long way here without flushing a grouse," Walter says. "Hunters thinking they'll just start walking to find birds should head north to take advantage of the high numbers there."

Forests are dynamic systems, however. They keep changing, and some of those changes might bode well for grouse, Walter says. They bring with them other problems, however.

"Forest pests, such as the emerald ash borer and gypsy moth have the potential to kill oak and ash in large blocks," Walter says. Depending on the composition of the forest, this may stimulate sufficient stem density generation to hold grouse. Biomass energy production may eventually increase the market for timber not currently being harvested, also leading to more grouse cover and grouse."

Landowner education continues to play a role in forest management, Walter says, but it's difficult to stimulate the expansive habitat management needed in an area nearly entirely held by private landowners, each with a small parcel and varying views on forest management.

Any major renewal of grouse in the southwest is years away — I'll probably not live to see it. For now, hunters would be wise to heed the advice of all these experts: Head north and take plenty of shells.

Editor's Note: For more on grouse hunting, listen to regular reports from RGS experts on the author's weekly radio show, "Outdoors Radio with Dan Small," on broadcast stations throughout the state and also available as a podcast on www.lake-link. com/radio and iTunes.

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