The ruffed grouse is Wisconsin’s fastest, most elusive upland game bird. Populations here are some of the best in the country.
The ruffed grouse is Wisconsin’s fastest, most elusive upland game bird. Populations here are some of the best in the country.
HUNTERS are being asked this month to comment on draft language of a first-ever ruffed grouse management plan for Wisconsin, a focused effort that’s long overdue.

Biologists have covered just about all aspects of this favored upland game bird, going so far as to address the impacts of climate change, wild turkeys, hunting, West Nile virus and the plan’s No. 1 mission — to better promote early-successional forest habitat on public and private lands.

Young forests and primarily aspen forests are the key to sustaining and/or improving grouse populations, for nothing is more important than quality habitat for nesting, brood-rearing, food and protection from predators.

The goal is to incorporate best-management practices for developing the kind of forests grouse need most, including oak regeneration and active vegetation management in northern hardwoods.

“This could include county, state and national forest management plans, Managed Forest Law plans, and forest management plans for private lands enrolled in the Deer Management Assistance Program or Farm Bill conservation programs,” the draft plan states.

Though you would not have believed it last winter when 36 inches of snow covered the ground for weeks, the most in more than 40 years, the plan states there is mounting evidence that climate change will impact grouse.

Researchers say that in big-snow winters, grouse get relief from the stress of cold weather and predators by roosting beneath the snow.

“Winter landscapes are changing and snow cover is becoming more variable throughout winter,” it states. “Loss of snow cover is predicted for Wisconsin in the future, which will likely limit the ability of grouse to use snow burrows and avoid cold winter temperatures.”

While the draft plan includes a lot of broad goals and strategies that will require extensive refinement in the years ahead, here are some of the particulars it proposes:

— Shortening the ruffed grouse hunting season by ending it on the Sunday nearest Jan. 6, which is almost a full month earlier than the current season framework;

— Add early-successional forest habitat work to Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wildlife biologist and technician positions descriptions and their annual work plans; and

— Within two years of plan approval, develop Ruffed Grouse Focal Areas to strategically direct ruffed grouse habitat management efforts and maximize benefits to the population.

Hopefully, putting an end to suspicions that wild turkeys are hurting grouse populations, the plan clearly states “there is virtually no evidence to suggest that turkeys have any measureable impact on ruffed grouse populations.”

First, there is minimal competition between the species because of differences in prefered habitat and diet. Secondly, researchers have never documented a turkey eating ruffed grouse eggs or chicks despite decades of extensive research where the two species’ ranges overlap.

According to the DNR, the primary factor driving ruffed grouse populations is the availability of young forest habitat that meets the needs for the various stages of the grouse life cycle.

“Across Wisconsin, we have seen a decline in young forest habitat with the greatest loss occurring in southwestern and central portions of the state,” the report indicates.

The only thing the scribbler did not find in the report was reference to how important weather can be to the 8- to 11-year population cycle, especially May and June weather that impacts brood production and survival.

And I guess that makes sense, seeing the state has no way of manipulating Mother Nature as part of this management plan process. Like anything else that relies on weather, we take what we get and adjust from there.

But know that population peaks cannot occur without several years of relatively warm, dry weather during these two months. Long cold spells mixed with wet conditions can be a killer in June, when newly hatched chicks don’t have feathers and are susceptible to exposure.

With respect to West Nile virus, no disease agent has been documented to cause significant declines in Wisconsin’s ruffed grouse population.

The Badger State is currently working with Michigan and Minnesota on a multiyear testing project that will help determine what impact, if any, West Nile and another native virus are having on grouse populations.

But the results of 248 grouse samples that were sent to the state by hunters last fall are still not available, though the department’s earlier guess for producing those results was late July.

According to the draft plan, it is important that biologists, hunters and outdoor enthusiasts notify the state wildlife health program if they notice grouse acting abnormally or if they observe sick or dead animals.

Of the three public hearings the department has set later this month to collect public feedback, one is scheduled at the DNR’s satellite station in Rhinelander on Thursday, Aug. 22, from 7-8 p.m.

My only request on the habitat subject is that land managers think beyond just the number of aspen acres they can produce.

I’m no expert on anything, but decades of chasing these birds has supported the theory that every aspen forest becomes more useful and productive for grouse when roads and skid trails are part of the tract.

These narrow roads and trails produce edge cover for food and protection, promote the growth of clover and other food sources, and quite often result in the growth of balsam trees and berry bushes that enhance protection and habitat.

And I’ll admit that such roads and trails make hunting a little easier and quite a bit more productive, especially when there is a looped trail involved where you don’t have to backtrack for long distances.

So there you go, a brief look at Wisconsin’s debut management plan for grouse. This is the time to provide input that will shape future habitat management, season frameworks and hunting regulations.