BECAUSE spring drumming from ruffed grouse showed a 7% drop from 2019 levels in the northern forest, state biologists claim the population cycle has peaked and we are headed for a down phase.

That news was delivered by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) last week, the agency that says it was forced to skip the annual survey last year during the pandemic.

For those who don’t know, drumming is performed by male ruffed grouse who are trying to attract hens for breeding. It is heard mostly during the spring mating season.

I just hate to be the guy who’s always second-guessing the experts, but our readers deserve to know this is just one big guess that could come back to bite their credibility, once again.

“Ruffed grouse typically follow a ten-year population cycle with cyclic highs occurring in years that end in 9, 0 or 1,” said Alaina Gerrits, DNR?assistant upland wildlife ecologist.

“It is likely that during this cycle, the grouse population peaked in 2019 or 2020 and it is likely that abundance will begin to decrease in the coming years as we enter the ‘down phase’ of the cycle,” she said.

But here’s the rub. The agency doesn’t know if drumming was up or down in 2020, when for the first time since 1964, they didn’t run the survey.

If drumming was down in 2020 but increased slightly in 2021, we could still be headed for the population peak that hunters have been waiting for — and really haven’t witnessed to date.

There have been times in recent years when population growth that was headed toward a peak, stalled for a year, even dropping significantly, and then picked up again.

We’ve seen some real flukes in this population cycle the past decade. Remember when the DNR?declared the peak occurred in 2009, and then two years later, adjusted that determination to 2011?

How about the mysterious die-off of grouse in the summer of 2017, when the population was supposed to be growing toward the next peak? Spring drumming activity in 2018 was down like 30%, confirming the die-off. But it roared back in 2019 to make up those losses, again headed upward.

With climate change, more weather extremes and new factors such as West Nile virus, the scribbler isn’t convinced that the next peak has to be in a year that ends with 9, 0 or 1. This cycle is no longer that predictable.

Most everyone has learned the danger of taking a single person’s experiences and trying to apply them across the board, because they don’t necessarily represent the whole.

But I’m going to mention that the scribbler and Gracie, my black Lab, put on more than 250 miles in the grouse woods in each of the last two falls. And that’s walking, not road hunting. We hunt state, national and county forest lands, along with industrial forest.

We haven’t witnessed anything close to a peak in the grouse population, and I’ve heard similar reports from other hunters who are still waiting for that peak to occur. But again, there’s nothing scientific about those limited experiences.

Keep in mind we are talking about a 7% decline in drumming over a two-year period — which might be within a normal plus or minus category for any survey. Compare that to a 30% drop in drumming in 2018, which totally corrected itself the next spring. 

The other variable is whether the agency ran its drumming transects at the peak time this year. With an early spring where ice-out occurred in late March, timing on the ideal drumming period might have changed?

If the DNR?is correct with their latest announcement, that the peak is past us, then it is truly a sad day for grouse hunters. It means our young forest habitat has reached such a low point that we can’t even recognize a peak year from a normal year.

In 2020, the third year of a West Nile virus study, 20% of the grouse sampled had been in contact with the mosquito-carried virus. Researchers found antibodies to the virus in seven of the 36 birds submitted for sampling.

That includes a grouse that I submitted for testing, yet the bird was fat, healthy and obviously unaffected by the virus it fought off. The virus had not impacted the heart tissue in 35 of the 36 birds.

Only time will tell on whether the DNR will eat crow on its determination that the grouse population already peaked, but I’ve got a good feeling on this one.

June weather is key to brood survival in ruffed grouse because the newly hatched chicks don’t have feathers and can’t survive long periods of cold, wet conditions.

We just experienced one of the warmest, driest Junes on record, which should bode well for producing the large broods that boost fall hunting and future spring drumming.

Warm weather also means an abundance of the high-protein insects these little grouse need to survive in their early days. It’s the same for turkey poults and ducklings.

In any event, we need to stay focused on creating more of the dense, young forest cover that results from fire and logging — the key to future grouse survival.

We need to balance old growth forest and massive hardwood stands with a significant amount of young aspen for diverse, healthy forests.