RHINELANDER— Some of the largest conservation and hunting organizations in Wisconsin came out last week against a proposal to shorten the ruffed grouse season this fall.

At a hearing called by the Natural Resources Board (NRB) prior to its vote on an emergency rule later this month, the Ruffed Grouse Society, the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, a group of retired biologists and many hunters spoke against a Nov. 30 season closure.

Officials explained that the proposal to cut two months off the season came from the NRB at the request of a couple of high-ranking Wisconsin Conservation Con­gress members and was not promoted by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) or its biologists.

A spokesperson for the board said the general thought was that shortening the season would eliminate some harvest pressure without sig­nif-icantly impacting the most productive portion of the season.

Several called it a knee-jerk reaction to the 38% decline in spring drumming in the northern forest region, an annual survey that has indicated population trends since 1964.

In a nutshell, they said the state should wait until testing is done for West Nile Virus in grouse because currently, there’s no proof that the 2017 decline wasn’t part of a natural 10-year population cycle that sometimes has abbreviated highs and lows.

Testimony from nearly a dozen individuals was nearly unanimous in opposition to the early closure, with most saying there was no science to support the emergency rule despite last year’s decline in grouse numbers.

Ralph Fritz, chairman of the Wildlife Committee of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said they’ve conducted extensive discussion on shortening the season and the potential impact of West Nile Virus on ruffed grouse populations.

“The federation strongly believes that fish and wildlife regulations should be based on scientific studies and the professional judgment of natural resource professionals with input from sportsmen and -women,” he said.

“Based on the current level of information, the federation does not support the Nov. 30 closure. The federation does support moving the current Jan. 31 season closure to either Jan. 6 or Dec. 31.”

He noted that resource agencies in Minnesota and Michigan were retaining their normal ruffed grouse season framework. The season ends Jan. 1 in Michigan and Jan. 19 in Minnesota.

“A very small portion of the harvest occurs after Nov. 30 so retaining a later closing date won’t impact the long-term population,” said Fritz.

Dan Anderson of Eagle River, chairman of the Chain O’ Lakes Chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society, said he and the organization opposed the early closure.

“There’s no evidence that the early closure will have any discernible impact on the grouse population,” said Anderson. “Coming up with a solution that will not affect a problem that may or may not even exist doesn’t make sense to me, so I’m going on record as saying leave the season as it is.”

RGS regional biologist Jon Steigerwaldt said the organization believes in a science-based approach.

“There’s not much science available to support that what we are seeing now is outside normal population fluctuations,” said Steigerwaldt. “But we do fully support the West Nile Virus testing to determine whether  that factor can be eliminated from the list of things that might have impacted the population in 2017.”

Ken Anderson of Eagle River thanked the DNR for holding a hearing up north and thanked Fred Prehn of Wausau, a member of the NRB, for attending to listen to the public’s concerns prior to the board’s vote later this month.

He joined the vast majority who oppose the shortened season, saying the December and January harvest is extremely low.

Saying hunters and people in general are creatures of habit, one hunter suggested the shorter season might discourage hunters from coming here in December in future years. He said that goes against the DNR’s mission to retain hunters.

Ron Eckstein of Rhine­lander, a retired DNR wild­life biologist, spoke on behalf of Wisconsin’s Green Fire, a group composed of retired wildlife biologists.

“We appreciate the concern over  ruffed grouse management and whether West Nile Virus requires some modification to the season framework and bag limits,” said Eckstein. “But in this case we believe a thorough review of the ruffed grouse population status is warranted before rulemaking is undertaken.”

The group complimented the DNR for working to establish a comprehensive ruffed grouse management plan in Wisconsin, which has never been done.

“We recommend that the board table the rule until 2019, until the first round of West Nile Virus testing is completed, and preferably to 2020, when the management plan is in place,” said Eckstein.

He said long-term data from Wisconsin and other states shows that current season frameworks are sustainable.

A couple of hunters spoke in favor of the shorter season to protect the breeding population at what appears to be a 13-year low in the cycle, based on spring drumming.

Those hunters also expressed interest in a long-term earlier closure to prevent unethical harvest after deep snow cover forces birds to feed on buds in the treetops.

Study encouraged

The Wisconsin Wildlife Federation is encouraging the DNR to conduct a study with their counterparts in Minnesota and Michigan to assess the impact of West Nile Virus on ruffed grouse in Wisconsin and neighboring states.

DNR officials explained before the hearing testimony was taken that it’s not an apples--to-apples comparison between Wisconsin and Penn­­sylvania, where West Nile Virus has been found in grouse.

“Their biologists say they have far less habitat and that it is extremely fragmented, a condition that is blamed for a higher incidence of West Nile Virus in their birds,” he said, noting that Wisconsin’s habitat is widespread and some of the best in the nation.

No cases of West Nile Virus have been found to date involving grouse in Wisconsin. The dead birds that have tested positive since the first cases in 2002 have been generally crows and blue jays.

State biologists pointed out that the estimated number of grouse hunters peaked from a high of about 178,000 in 1989 but has dropped 60% to about 60,000 in 2017.

They claim the annual grouse harvest has declined by about the same percentage, estimated at about 195,000 birds last year.

Harvest estimates on grouse and all small game, however, are determined from random surveys that are sent long after the season to license holders. Of the 225,000 holders of small-game licenses, just 10,000 receive a survey. Last year, 34% of the surveys were returned.