What the heck happened in Michigan's grouse woods last season? Where were the birds? We went to the head of the Ruffed Grouse Society for some answers.
Dan Dessecker of the Ruffed Grouse Society said weather played a major role in last season's poor grouse hunting in Michigan.
Michigan grouse hunters have been poised the last couple of years like a teenager on a first date, all puckered up, full of anticipation with hormones raging, waiting for something great to happen. Much like the frustrated teenager, Michigan's grouse hunter's expectations have not come to fruition.
"I predicted that we would see some increase in grouse numbers in 2004," said Dan Dessecker, senior wildlife biologist with the Ruffed Grouse Society. "That was true in Minnesota, but it didn't happen in Wisconsin and Michigan. The 2004 season across much of the region was very similar to 2003. We saw a slight upturn in Minnesota, and even in isolated parts of Wisconsin, but not in Michigan. The cycle moves west to east, so we're likely to see some improvement this year in Wisconsin and Michigan."
Dessecker said that weather was probably a big factor in the delay of the recovery.
"We had a very poor spring last year with regard to nesting success and that undoubtedly set back the recovery," theorized Dessecker. "The cold, wet spring we experienced last year didn't help."
Dessecker said that the grouse cycle typically hits its low end in years that end in "3," "4" or "5" and peaks in years that end in "8," "9" or "0." Dessecker cautioned though that the cycle doesn't always follow a predictable 10-year timetable. Harvest estimates compiled by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, though, indicated that the 10-year cycle is fairly accurate. Michigan experienced peaks in the grouse harvest during the past decades in 2000 and 1990, and very good hunting from 1979 through 1982.
"I've always said that during the low end of the cycle, that a reasonable hunter with dogs will flush an average of two grouse per hour," suggested Dessecker. "When the cycle peaks, that same hunter is going to average six or seven flushes per hour. Obviously, considering recent flush rates, we are already at the bottom of the cycle."
Flush rates across the state for 2003, the last year for which the figures were available, averaged 1.45 flushes per hour. Flush rates in 2004 probably weren't much different.
Al Stewart, Michigan DNR game-bird specialist, echoed Dessecker's observations.
"The 2004 grouse season was not too bad," claimed Stewart, "but it wasn't any better than 2003. We are definitely at the low end of the cycle. I think weather events have curtailed the grouse recovery somewhat. Given a good nesting season, we should begin that uphill creep that we've been expecting. People are not going to see any major change from this fall from last fall, but using my crystal ball, I think we should see some improvement."
Even with grouse numbers at a cyclical low, grouse hunting provides a lot of recreational opportunity. The DNR estimates that about 103,000 hunters spent time in the woods pursuing Michigan's most popular forest game bird. Each hunter spent an average of seven to eight days afield, totaling almost a million days of recreation. Michigan's grouse harvest was estimated at 358,000 birds in 2003, and Stewart suggested that the 2004 harvest was somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 grouse.
Michigan wildlife biologists use several methods to estimate and monitor ruffed grouse populations, including hunter cooperator surveys, spring breeding surveys and hunter mail surveys. Cooperator surveys are based on volunteer hunters who express an interest in participating and are willing to maintain hunting records every year. The early-season reports provided by ruffed grouse cooperators allows biologists to get a quick fix on hunting success and bird abundance during the beginning of the grouse season and before final season figures are available.
During the early portion of the 2004 season, cooperators returned 112 surveys that included 444.3 hours of hunting in 37 counties. Only one county (Lake) was reported to have a flush rate of over 2.0 grouse per hour during the Sept. 15-18 period. Counties with more than 20 hours of hunting effort during the period and their flush rates included Allegan (20.0 hours, 0.5 grouse per hour), Gladwin (59.1, 1.0), Grand Traverse (22.8, 1.9), Kalkaska (29.7, 1.7), Lake (24.8, 2.0), Mackinac (33.4, 0.8), Montmorency (29.3, 1.4) and Oscoda (24.1, 1.2). Overall during the period, hunters averaged 1.2 grouse flushes per hour compared to the 1.7 grouse per hour flushed during the same time period in 2003. Cooperators logged 503.5 hours during the early season in 2003. The low flush rates average was reflected in the fact that 66 percent of the cooperators thought that grouse populations were down or slightly down from 2003 in the areas they hunted.
The balance of the season proved that the early-season impressions of cooperators were correct. Flush rates by region remained low throughout the 2003 season. Two hundred thirty cooperators logged 5,805 hunting hours during the period. The number of grouse flushed per hour by cooperators in 2003 increased by 13.2 percent statewide compared to flush rates from 2002. In Zone 1, cooperators average 1.80 flushes per hour. In the northern Lower Peninsula (Zone 2) flush rates averaged 1.68, and in Zone 3, flush rates averaged paltry 0.88 grouse per hour. The consensus is that flush rates during 2004 probably weren't any better. Hopes are that given a good nesting season, hunters will see improved flush rates and more birds in 2005.
Spring drumming counts are another way biologists estimate grouse abundance. Spring breeding surveys are conducted during April and May. Researchers gathered data from 107 survey routes in 2004 and 121 routes in 2003. Statewide, the number of drums heard per route was 9.61 in 2003 and 8.05 in 2004, indicating a decline of 16 percent. The trend was observed in both Zone 1 and 2. The number of drums in Zone 3 didn't change. Both Wisconsin and Minnesota experienced declines in the grouse drumming indices between 2003 and 2004.
With such low numbers of grouse, winter survival is critical.
"Winter conditions this year didn't seem to be severe," said Dessecker. "I would say we had a normal winter in terms of snow depths. We didn't have any wicked ice events that prevented the birds from feeding or roosting, so it was basically just a normal winter. The birds should have come through well."
Given enough brood stock to begin the much-anticipated rebound and a good spring for nesting, the next concern is habitat. "Habitat conditions continue to be on
a downward spiral," lamented Dessecker. He said that in places like the Upper Peninsula where the timber industry maintains an active aspen-cutting regiment, there is an abundance of ideal grouse habitat. The Lower Peninsula is a different story.
"Places like the Huron-Manistee National Forest are way below their aspen management goals," said Dessecker. "There's a very active voice out there that doesn't like to see trees cut, and it's a constant battle."
Fortunately, the DNR has taken a more active role in aspen management and doesn't have to cut through as much red tape as its federal counterparts do to actively manage wildlife habitat. Still, the maturation of Michigan's forests does not bode well for the future of grouse hunting.
"I think the 2004 season brought mixed results," said wildlife biologist Tom Weise, who works out of the DNR Newberry District office. "Some people did well, others didn't. I think overall it was a little better than the previous year."
Weise said that the winter of 2004-2005 was a cold one, but there was ample snow for roosting. The birds that remained should have come through the winter in good shape. How many birds hunters are likely to find in the fall of 2005 depends largely on spring conditions.
"The nesting season will tell," said Weise. "Last spring was bad. It was cold and rainy. I'm sure we had more grouse chick mortality last year than normal. Grouse chicks need protein in the form of insects, and a warm, dry spring brings the bugs out."
Weise said an active timber industry over the past decade has produced an abundance of grouse habitat in the eastern U.P.
"Some of the best reports typically come from the southern tier of counties, places like southern Schoolcraft and western Mackinac counties," suggested Weise. "Timber sales have been pretty steady, which is good for grouse." Smart hunters know the key to grouse hunting success usually means doing your homework. Contacting the local DNR office and its forestry division for information on past logging operations is a step in the right direction.
For more information on grouse hunting opportunities in the eastern U.P., contact the DNR's Newberry District office at (906) 293-5131.
Wildlife biologist Craig Albright, who splits time between the Crystal Falls District office and the Gladstone field office didn't mince words when I asked him about grouse hunting in 2004.
"It was pretty dismal," claimed Albright. "The guys who have good dogs and were able to hit the best covers found some birds, but the average guy had a tough time. We were poised for a rebound last year, but the poor nesting conditions in the spring really hurt."
Albright said that like most places in the U.P. the key to finding grouse in the central and western part of the peninsula is to find those stands of wrist-thick 10- to 15-year-old aspens.
"Fortunately, we're close to places that have a major demand for timber, and there's an abundance of good hunting within 10 or 15 minutes of just about anywhere you're at in the central and western U.P.," offered Albright. Right now, Albright said that there's a good mix of aspens of different age-classes in large expanses of Delta, Menominee and Dickenson counties. Again, the key is to lay down some boot leather and do your homework to discover those secret coverts.
For information on grouse hunting opportunities in the central and western U.P., contact the Gladstone field office at (906) 786-2351 or the Crystal Falls District office at (906) 875-6622.
A lot of the hunting effort for grouse occurs in the northern portion of the Lower Peninsula. A rebound in grouse numbers there depends on Mother Nature.
"A lot depends on the nesting season," said wildlife biologist Larry Smith, who works out of the Baldwin field office. "We would have had better hunting last year if we'd had a better nesting season. I'm optimistic about the prospects for this year. I was really surprised to see the number of birds I did this winter. So the birds are around."
Smith said that it becomes doubly important to be able to identify and concentrate on the best coverts when grouse numbers are low. An avid grouse hunter himself, Smith said that the transitional cover near lakes, streams and rivers provides some of the most consistent grouse hunting in the Lower Peninsula.
"The corridors along streams and rivers have moist soils that promote the kind of transitional cover that grouse thrive in," said Smith. "Water is the key."
Look for good grouse coverts along major rivers like the Muskegon, Manistee, Au Sable and Tittabawassee and their tributaries in the northern L.P. An abundance of shrubs and bushes like nannyberry, dogwood, wild grape and others that produce soft mast crops attract grouse. The brushy habitat also produces ideal brood cover and an abundance of insects critical to grouse chick survival. As grouse disperse in early fall, look for them in the second-growth aspen stands nearby.
Smith said he had fairly decent hunting last season considering the low grouse numbers in Osceola, Lake, Missaukee and Wexford counties. Grouse can be spotty in Wexford County, except along the watersheds. Expect good grouse hunting in the northeast and southeast portions of Missaukee County and in the northeast portion of Lake County. Osceola County doesn't have much in the way of public lands, but you'll find some good grouse coverts along the Muskegon River on private lands. A courteous request may get you permission to hunt.
For more information on hunting opportunities in western Michigan, contact the Baldwin field office of the DNR at (231) 745-4651 or the Cadillac District office at (231) 775-9727.
Many grouse hunters head to the northern part of the L.P. to do their grousing. That's a good idea.
"We have some excellent habitat for grouse," said wildlife biologist Mark Boersen. "There's a good diversity of age-classes in the aspen cuts, and there's a lot of it. Unfortunately, we have a lot of hunting pressure, too."
Boersen said he largely oversees Roscommon and Ogemaw counties. Of the two, Roscommon has the most aspen. "You'll find a lot of aspen in Roscommon County west of Higgins Lake and south of Houghton Lake," offered Boersen. You can find some good grouse hunting in the Ogemaw State Forest along the Rifle River. Much of Ogemaw County, though, is jackpine habitat. Good for Kirkland's warblers, but not grouse.
After enduring a pretty slow 2004 season, Boersen expects improved hunting in 2005. "The winter wasn't very severe, the snow depths weren't outrageous and the temperatures were bearable, so I'd expect that winter mortality was minimal. With a good spring, I think we'll see more birds."
For more information on grouse hunting opportunities in northern Michigan, contact the Roscommon field office at (989)
275-5151 or the Gaylord District office at (989) 732-3541.
One place where even an ideal spring isn't likely to help grouse numbers is in Michigan's Thumb. The Thumb's grouse numbers have been in a tailspin for nearly a decade and don't seem likely to recover. When I asked wildlife biologist Arnie Karr if he had noticed any changes in grouse abundance last season, his quick reply was, "No improvement. The cover seems to be there. Winters have not been a problem. The weather last spring had a major affect on ground-nesting birds like pheasants and grouse, but it normally doesn't affect grouse as much because of the type of habitat they live in." Still, a rebound in grouse numbers in Michigan's Thumb doesn't seem likely anytime in the near future.
For information on public-hunting opportunities in The Thumb, contact the Cass City field office at (989) 872-5300.
An avid grouse hunter once told me, "If God made a more delicious bird, he kept it for himself." If we have a normal spring this year, grouse hunters should have more opportunities to fry, roast and bake their favorite game bird this fall.