BRINGING at least a temporary sigh of relief from grouse hunters, the state reported last week that spring drumming counts in the northern forest skyrocketed by 48% this spring.

It’s the best news of the year from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) after a 38% decline in drumming last spring and fears that West Nile virus might have taken a toll on adult grouse during the summer of 2017.

Many of us theorized that the plunge was weather-related due to a summer of rain and extreme cold, but biologists found a couple of dead grouse with West Nile for the first time ever. 

That discovery fueled speculation that the new virus might be responsible for killing hundreds of adult birds, because hunters found a severe lack of adult grouse in woods during the fall of 2017.

Such a drastic decline didn’t make sense from a historical perspective because spring drumming activity was up 30% that year and biologists were tracking a population climb toward the next peak in the cycle.

In fact, the department said it was the first time they recorded a severe population decline while grouse numbers were headed toward another population peak. The 2018 drumming dropped to its lowest level since 2005.

Cold, wet weather in June has been known to adversely impact brood production and survival. But until 2017, it was not tied to major declines in the number of adult grouse.

Hunters are still waiting to hear from the DNR on the results of West Nile testing from last fall. At the state’s request, hunters submitted heart and blood samples from 248 grouse that were taken across northern Wisconsin. Those results are expected in July.

Many die-hard grouse hunters, the scribbler included, had a difficult time accepting the possibility that a virus such as West Nile could suddenly have a major impact on the grouse population when previously not one West Nile-related grouse death was reported.

Meanwhile, DNR officials say the 2019 spring drumming results made up for much of the unanticipated decline last year and “appears to put Wisconsin back on track for approaching the next cyclical high in the ruffed grouse population.”

Mark Witecha, the DNR’s upland wildlife ecologist, said increased drumming activity is a good sign that there were more breeding grouse on the landscape this year.

“As we enter the brood-rearing season, weather conditions over the coming weeks will be critical in determining what grouse enthusiasts see in the grouse woods this fall,” said Witecha.

It is widely known that the results of the spring hatch and the number of young birds that survive into the fall can have a huge impact on hunter success. Large broods mean more birds that are easier to find and harvest than the quicker, more elusive adult grouse.

The 2019 Ruffed Grouse Drumming Survey showed a statewide increase of 41% between 2018 and 2019. That included a 48% increase in the northern forest and a 35% increase in the central forest, the two regions that account for most of the state’s grouse habitat.

The long-established roadside surveys were done on 116 transects statewide. Drumming activity decreased on 11 routes, increased on 36 routes and was unchanged on 69 routes.

Weather-related survey conditions were similar between the two years. The biologists and technicians that run the routes reported “excellent” conditions on 62% of the routes this year compared to 64% last year.

While grouse populations recede and rise on a nine to 11-year cycle, the peak years usually ending in a 9, 0 or 1, the DNR notes an overriding downward trend since the inception of the drumming survey in 1964.

“Grouse highs are not as high as they have been in the past and the amplitude of the change from low to high, seems to be decreasing,” the survey noted. “Changing land use patterns and the long-term aging of Wisconsin’s forests are likely playing a role in these changes.”

Wisconsin as a whole and especially the national forest here has lost hundreds of thousands of acres of aspen habitat as management plans and public demand calls for less clear-cutting and more of both mature northern hardwoods and old-growth forest.

Witecha said ruffed grouse rely on dense, young forest cover resulting from disturbances such as fire and logging.

“Beyond actively managing state-owned lands, Wisconsin DNR is working to provide suitable grouse habitat through collaborative efforts such as the Wisconsin Young Forest Partnership and jointly funded forest wildlife specialist positions with the Ruffed Grouse Society and the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service,” he said.

The partnerships provide technical and financial assistance for delivering young forest management on private lands, benefiting ruffed grouse and other wildlife species by helping maintain healthy and diverse forest communities.

Also, for the first time, the DNR is working with partners to develop a Ruffed Grouse Management Plan. The draft plan will be released for public review later this summer with public meetings to be held during the public comment period.

Ever since the mysterious grouse plunge in summer 2017, hunters have been leery about the future of grouse hunting and whether the population would bounce back naturally.

With a 48% increase in drumming activity this spring in the northern forest region, there is no doubt that this incredible game bird is rebounding from the big plunge.

Praise the Lord on that one. And let’s pray that warmer, sunny weather for raising broods returns to the North Woods very soon.