Up the Creek: Ruffed grouse hunting season begins next month
Up the Creek
Ken M. Blomberg
The 2018 ruffed grouse hunting season begins next month on Saturday the 15th. This year’s hunting regulation pamphlet has been printed and calls for a normal season running through January 31st. But wait. The season length for Wisconsin’s most popular game bird may be greatly altered before it even begins. Read on.
Out of the blue, two elected citizen members of Wisconsin Conservation Congress (WCC) testified on the upcoming ruffed grouse hunting season at the August DNR Natural Resources Board (NRB) monthly meeting held in Green Bay. They repeated their position from the July NRB meeting to shorten the season length from 4 ½ months to 2 months. Under an emergency rule change, this will allow the NRB to make a new 63-day season effective this year. Despite testimony against the closure from the Ruffed Grouse Society (RGS), wildlife biologists and others, the Board took no action on the final season closure date last week, but instead instructed staff to hold another public hearing in early September in Rhinelander.
Think about it. Under the proposed season change, the average ruffed grouse hunter will be limited to a 20-day season over 9 weeks – if in fact, weekends are his or her only option. A few lucky ones may take a week off of work to hunt, extending their season to 25 days. And if your doing the math and trying to count in the 9-day gun deer season over Thanksgiving, think again. Not prime time to run bird dogs with the orange army. The WCC argument for a shorter season is two-fold and comes from situations in other states. First, a West Nile Virus (WNV) scare in Pennsylvania and Michigan has the WCC blaming it on the current downturn in the grouse’s 10-year cycle. Secondly, the WCC believes late season (December and January) hunting is detrimental to population survival.
It is a well-known fact that ruffed grouse populations predictively rise and fall every 10 or 11 years. Researchers have traced those findings back to the 1850s! In 1935-36 ruffed grouse numbers crashed. In 1945-46 their numbers crashed. In 1955-56 their numbers crashed. In 1965-66, 1975-76, 1985-1986, 1995-1996, 2005-06 their populations crashed. And in 2015-16 their numbers crashed once again. Come 2021-22, Great Lakes State grouse populations should rebound to another high. And predictively, ruffed grouse numbers will crash once again in 2025-26.Once biologists learned the nature of highs and lows, seasons remained open even during the low years. Hunting was no longer considered the reason for crashes in the population. Theories abound, but to this day no scientific reason has been proven.
As to our current cycle, state wildlife biologists reported spring male drumming counts in 2017 across the Great Lakes states were up substantially from 2016. Was the cycle on the upswing? Perhaps. With a good hatch, we’d be up to our eyeballs in grouse some thought. Hunters were excited by the numbers. Biologists were cautiously optimistic. But alas, spring and early summer weather conditions for nesting and brood rearing were disastrous. Hunters found mixed results across all three states. Only the best habitat contained good numbers for those in the right places. Grouse were on the landscape, but typical of recovering years, hard to come by.
The Statement of Scope before the NRB last month noted the 2017 harvest of 185,336 represented the lowest estimated harvest in the past 34 years. However, with a documented record harvest of 421,728 in 1941 (76 years ago) and record low of 72,778 birds killed in 1935 (82 years ago), there is reason to look further back in our upland hunting history for answers.
The Statement of Scope also noted that research indicates late season harvest can have negative impacts on grouse populations. I have not seen such research. In contrast, recent research from Maine, a state much like Wisconsin, with young growth habitat and aggressive woodland harvesting practices concluded that late-season harvest of ruffed grouse was not excessive, and recommend maintaining their current hunting season through the end of December.
Wisconsin will be the only Great Lakes State to alter the ruffed grouse season length in 2018. Michigan, which detected WNV last year, and Minnesota are not shortening their seasons. Wisconsin has not documented a single case of WNV in grouse. Wisconsin wildlife biologists have not recommended shortening season length. Shortening the season will not prevent overharvest as recent scientific research in Maine concluded. My friend and now retired WI DNR grouse biologist John Kubisiak, spent a lifetime career – through, I might add, many 10-year population cycles – studying and documenting the effect of hunting on grouse populations at the Sandhill Wildlife Refuge near Babcock. This groundbreaking research led to lengthening of late season hunting.
Watch DNR announcements for the upcoming hearings in Rhinelander on this year’s season length. I was told online comments will also be accepted. Regardless of your position on this issue, this is your chance to participate in the process and share your two cents.
Blomberg is the author of two books, UP THE CREEK, and WISCONSIN BIRD HUNTING TALES. Both are available at either amazon.com,barnesandnoble.com or arcadiapublishing.com. Autographed copies are available from the author at [email protected].