A better way to try ruffed grouse? DNR explores whether breeding survey can better predict hunting prospects – Grand Forks Herald

GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. – It’s still a work in progress, but the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is exploring whether a breeding count survey for ruffed grouse would give hunters a better idea of ​​what to expect as far as fall hunting prospects.

The survey would complement the drum counts that DNR staff conduct each spring with the help of other partners, including Native American tribes and other natural resource agencies.

Female Spruce Grouse by Charlotte Roy.JPG
Charlotte Roy, a grouse research scientist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, holds a female grouse in this undated photo.

Contributed/Charlotte Roy

Historically, the drum count survey has been the only tool for DNR wildlife managers to sample grouse because the forest habitat where they live makes counting them difficult. As part of the survey, staff drive predetermined routes and listen for the drumming sound male grouse make as they rapidly flap their wings in an effort to attract a mate.

However, for the past two decades, drum count surveys have not correlated very well with fall conditions, said Charlotte Roy, a grouse research scientist for the DNR in Grand Rapids, who coordinates the brood count survey. .

There could be a variety of reasons for that, says Roy, including West Nile virus and climate change, both of which could negatively impact nesting and hatchling success.

“Since 2019, we’ve been trying to see if we can better handle the fall forecast,” he said. “So the hatchling count survey that we’re exploring, and I’d say explore is the right word, is just to try and see if we can get a better handle on what the fall forecast would be for hunters.

“A lot of people travel from out of state and travel long distances to hunt grouse, and that’s information hunters enjoy having.”

In developing the survey, now in its fourth year, Roy initially asked cooperators in the spring drum count survey if they would be willing to keep track of their time in the field, both on foot and while driving, and indicate whether or not you saw grouse chicks.

“It’s important to also include observations of when people don’t see hatchlings because it gives us an indicator of how much effort is being put in,” Roy said. “If people only tell us when they see pups but don’t tell us when they don’t, that would inflate our estimates.”

Since the initial survey, the hatchling count study has expanded to include personnel from different sections of the DNR and even private foresters, says Roy. This year, 52 observers from across the state’s ruffed grouse range, all wildlife and natural resource professionals, provided hatchling count data.

“They’re basically keeping, it’s like a diary of, ‘I spent so much time in the field today in the woods, and I didn’t see anything. Or, this is what I saw,’” Roy said.

The numbers are compiled by county during June, July, and August, after which Roy summarizes the data and writes a report.

Ideally, the results would document patterns between what observers see in the field and what hunters find in the fall. However, so far, the results are mixed, Roy says.

In 2021, for example, widespread spring and summer drought created ideal conditions for strong grouse production, Roy says, and anecdotal reports from hunters indicated that they were generally happy with the success of the fall hunt. past.

However, results from a mail survey of small game hunters conducted by other DNR staff indicated that last year’s outgrown grouse harvest statistics were similar to those of the previous two years, Roy said. The average harvest of ruffed grouse has hovered between 3.5 and 3.7 birds per hunter since 2019, when he began exploring the breeding survey.

That’s “really not much” variability, says Roy.

“To date, those harvest statistics remain pretty much the same, even in years where we have strong production like last year,” he said. “We saw good numbers in the breeding survey, but it’s not really reflected in the harvest statistics.”

Based on this summer’s counts, counties in northeastern and north-central Minnesota, including Hubbard, Cook, Itasca, Lake and St. Louis, had the best ruffed grouse production, as measured by number of clutches views “per unit of time out in the field, either on foot or driving,” says Roy. Other counties to be included in his report include Becker, Beltrami, Carlton, Cass, Crow Wing and Koochiching, he says.

Counties must have at least 100 hours of observations before Roy includes them in the report.

Time will tell, says Roy, whether counting hatchlings ultimately proves to be a reliable indicator of hunting prospects for ruffed grouse in the fall. First, you’ll need a few more years of data.

“I hope so,” she said. “My goal is to create a useful product. But if we just find that it’s not predictive, then the answer will be no because we don’t want to just publish something that isn’t very useful.”

Despite the uncertainty, Roy says he thinks the hatchling count has potential. Studies have shown that up to 70% of the grouse grouse harvested in a particular fall are from that year’s hatch, she says.

“If we have a low production year, that can really affect what hunters see and experience in the fall, so I’m very hopeful that we can get something meaningful out of this,” Roy said. “But I want to make sure that it will be significant before there are people who anticipate the publication of the information.”