Ruffed grouse populations in Wisconsin appear to be entering a downswing, according to a recently completed roadside ruffed grouse survey.
Ruffed grouse populations are known to boom and bust over a nine- to 11-year cycle, according to Brian Dhuey, wildlife surveys coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources. The index that Wisconsin uses to track ruffed grouse decreased 25 percent between 2011 and 2012.
“While this is a bit of bad news for grouse hunters, it should not be too big of a surprise,” Dhuey said. “We were overdue for the expected downturn.”
A roadside survey to monitor the number of breeding grouse has been conducted by staff from the DNR and U.S. Forest Service, tribal employees, and numerous grouse enthusiasts and volunteers since 1964. Surveyors begin 30 minutes before sun rise and drive along established routes, making 10 stops at assigned points and listening for four minutes for the distinctive “thump, thump, thump” drumming sounds made by male grouse. Results from this survey have helped DNR biologists monitor the cyclic population dynamics of ruffed grouse in the state.
“Spring arrived early in Wisconsin in 2012, and conditions for the survey were rated ‘excellent’ on 60 percent of the routes. This was about the same as last year’s 62 percent and above the long-term average,” Dhuey said.
The number of drums heard per stop was down 25 percent in 2012 from the previous year. Both of the primary regions for grouse in the state, the central and northern forest areas, showed declines of 21 and 26 percent respectively. The only area to show an increase was the southeast, where grouse exist in only isolated areas of suitable young forest habitat and are not common.
The number of routes that showed a decline in the number of drums heard outpaced those that showed an increase by better than 2:1 margin. Results from the survey matched declines seen on two research areas, with the Sandhill Wildlife Area showing a decline of 11 percent and the Stone Lake Experimental Area showing a decline of 18 percent. Complete survey results can be found on the DNR website (search Wildlife Reports).
“This drop in breeding grouse was not unexpected, as grouse populations tend to be at their peak in years ending in a 9 or 0 in Wisconsin. Last year we had an increase in grouse and were probably at the cyclic peak, a decline was inevitable,” Dhuey said.
“Early weather conditions are excellent for nesting and brood rearing, if we can stay normal or above for temperatures and have a bit of dry weather, we should have a pretty good brood year. I would expect that hunters will see a decline in the number of birds they see afield this fall, but areas of good cover should still hold birds. In years with low grouse numbers, hunters who find success are generally those willing to explore new coverts, as grouse will tend to occupy only the best habitat available and may not be found in the same areas where hunters found them in recent years,” he said.
For more information, search for ruffed grouse hunting on the DNR website.