THE BAD news is that for the first time, the West Nile virus has been discovered in Wisconsin ruffed grouse.

According to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), it was found in three of 16 grouse that were found sick or dead last fall.

The good news is that right now, there is still no evidence to confirm that West Nile virus (WNV) is having population-level impacts on ruffed grouse numbers.

The silver lining to the issue is that state wildlife officials are fortifying their focus on habitat management for ruffed grouse, which is mostly accomplished through forest vegetation management, i.e., logging.

Grouse enthusiasts are holding their breath, hoping that West Nile won’t be worse than a native virus that was first detected in Wisconsin grouse in the late 1950s, called Eastern Equine Encephalitis virus (EEEV).

“Historical information suggests that the likelihood of EEEV having population-level impacts on grouse is low,” said Mark Witecha, DNR upland wildlife specialist.

Besides the three dead or sick grouse that had West Nile, another three grouse were positive for EEEV, meaning six of 16 grouse had contracted a mosquito-borne virus. Two of the grouse with West Nile also had EEEV.

The DNR doesn’t yet know if the non-native West Nile virus will have more of an impact than the native one, but they are currently into the first year of a three-year study with Michigan and Minnesota to find out more.

Witecha said 238 hunter-harvested grouse samples remain to be tested from last fall, so we won’t learn until at least mid-2019 about the state or regional infection rate.

It appears Wisconsin grouse hunters did their part last fall, returning almost 50% of the 500 self-sampling kits that were distributed by the DNR, the Ruffed Grouse Society and the Wisconsin Conservation Congress.

The scribbler turned in a half-dozen grouse samples from various parts of Vilas, Oneida and Forest counties. The kits called for the collection of a blood sample and grouse heart, along with the exact location of where the bird was harvested. They had to be refrigerated but not frozen, and sent UPS in a special cold-pack envelope.

Grouse are getting a lot of attention these days because the adult population plummeted during the spring and summer of 2017 despite a 30% increase in drumming — which measures the number of adult birds and the post-winter population trend.

It is still a mystery because in a year when everything looked like the state’s grouse population was headed for one of those 10-year peaks in the cycle, the bottom fell out.

Worse than that was the massive loss of adult birds when normally, cold and wet weather takes a toll on brood production and chick survival as opposed to killing adult birds.

In the Northern Region, we went from a 30% increase in 2017 spring drumming to a 36% decline in the 2018 drumming counts.

So far, biologists and the Ruffed Grouse Society have concluded that the 2017 population decline is within the normal parameters of the 10-year cycle, which last peaked in 2011.

But that’s not preventing biologists in the three-state area from organizing a grouse-testing game plan, just to determine once and for all what impact WNV is having.

What’s the big deal?

For many years, the federal government’s Forest Service has used ruffed grouse as an indicator species on overall forest health.

“The Great Lakes Region contains some of the most extensive early-successional forest habitat and healthiest ruffed grouse populations in the nation,” said Witecha. “We are currently working with partners to develop a long-term management strategy for ruffed grouse in Wisconsin.”

Those words, along with the importance being placed on habitat to mitigate the impacts of West Nile virus and other potential diseases, are music to my ears. 

Biologists say ruffed grouse are a short-lived species with only 30% of the average adult population surviving year to year. With the challenge of new mosquito-borne viruses, we need to do more habitat work to keep populations sustainable.

There have been a few encouraging reports from other hunters who ran into large groups of grouse during last fall’s hunting seasons.

Though extremely spotty, it’s always great to hear about a deer hunter who flushed more than a dozen birds on multiple days walking in and out of a stand area in the national forest.

Knowing there are pockets of birds out there tells me that the same thing is possible on the thousands of acres of forest land that never see a grouse hunter. 

Personally, all I know for sure is that there is no more challenging upland game bird to chase than the ruffed grouse, for its ability to elude hunters is legendary.

They quite often live in some of the most tangled, most remote forest habitat where the walking is tough and the shooting is nearly impossible.

It seems only a select group of hunters, a small percentage, are up for the challenge of walking countless miles to find and flush what might be a couple of birds.

And that might be part of the draw, that this rewarding and exciting endeavor is not for everyone. Add the work of a good bird dog to the equation and you rachet up the entertainment another notch.

Time will tell what impact this new virus will have on grouse numbers. Meanwhile, we need a better habitat plan to ensure they are around for generations to come.