By any standard, Wisconsin’s grouse hunters should be far happier this summer than they were a year ago, when ruffed-grouse numbers apparently plummeted across the Northwoods.
Why smile? The Department of Natural Resources announced in mid-June that its springtime grouse-drumming surveys showed a 41% jump from a year ago statewide, fueled mainly by a 48% increase across the agency’s Northern region and a 35% increase in the Central region. Those regions are Wisconsin’s primary ruffed-grouse range.
Lest pessimists reserve judgment on the survey’s accuracy, we note weather conditions for the drumming surveys this spring were nearly identical to those in 2018, when the surveys documented a 34% decline statewide and 38% in the Northern region. Overall survey conditions this spring were rated excellent on 62% of its transects. Survey conditions in 2018 were rated excellent on 64% of the transects. Likewise, Minnesota reported 29 percent statewide drumming declines last year.
The mysterious declines in spring 2018 followed a record-low Wisconsin grouse kill in autumn 2017 of 185,336, a 30% drop from 262,943 in 2016. That double dose of bad news wasn’t what biologists and hunters expected after the spring 2017 grouse-drumming counts rose 17% statewide in Wisconsin and 57% in Minnesota.
For whatever reason, few young birds lived till fall 2017 across northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Still, despite those 2017 harvest declines and 2018 drum-survey dips across the Great Lakes, only Wisconsin acted as if the grouse apocalypse was nigh. We can’t blame DNR biologists for the overreaction. They agreed with Ruffed Grouse Society biologists, and DNR biologists in Minnesota and Michigan, that everyone should wait until 2019 before losing their nerve.
Instead, our seven-citizen Natural Resources Board, which sets DNR policy, started scurrying to shorten the grouse season by two months. It eventually compromised and issued an emergency order to close grouse season Dec. 31, one month before the usual Jan. 31 closure.
But pruning the season had no biological rationale. Few hunters chase grouse in January, and a nearly 40-year-old DNR study of late-season grouse hunting still seemed valid. That research found 7% of grouse hunts and 11% of grouse kills occurred after Nov. 30. Likewise, preliminary results of an ongoing DNR survey found 82% of resident grouse hunters never enter Wisconsin’s grouse woods in January.
Keep that in mind should you assume the DNR Board’s emergency order sparked the dramatic turnaround in drumming counts. You’ll find nothing scientific to show the Jan. 31 closure ever hurt grouse numbers or recreational hunting.
The Board’s emergency order resembled preschoolers self-diagnosing their bumps, bruises and scratches, and treating imaginary boo-boos with band-aids, ice cubes and grandma’s kisses. If an animal-rights group had been pushing to shorten grouse season, the Board would have ridiculed the idea and its fact-free, science-starved origins.
Even so, it looks certain the DNR will recommend the Board end grouse season the Sunday nearest Jan. 5 from now on. After all, preliminary information from its grouse survey found 67% of hunters support the early January closure. One can only assume those hunters were swept up in the Board-led hysteria of 2018, which assumed west Nile virus was wiping out grouse from Minnesota to Pennsylvania, and that late-season hunters would ground-swat and branch-blast the species out of existence.
Sure, one can argue the early January closure still gives Wisconsin grouse hunters more time afield than their counterparts in neighboring states. Michigan’s grouse season runs Sept. 15 to Nov. 14, and Dec. 1 to Jan. 1; while Minnesota’s grouse season opens Sept. 14 and ends Jan. 1.
But why curtail a legitimate recreational hunting opportunity that isn’t harming the resource, especially when the latest scientific surveys hold promise? Here’s what Page 2 of the DNR’s 2019 Ruffed Grouse Drumming Survey reports:
“The decrease in breeding-grouse activity in 2018 was unexpected but not unprecedented during the ‘increase phase’ of the grouse cycle. The large increase in breeding grouse in 2019 has made up for much of the loss seen in 2018 and puts Wisconsin back on track for the grouse population high expected in the next year or so. Cyclic highs usually occur in years ending in a 9, 0 or 1. The severity of the decrease in 2018 is not an incidence Wisconsin has witnessed in past ruffed-grouse cycles, and will likely take some time to determine a cause or may never be fully explainable.”
This year’s turnaround in drumming numbers should reassure and remind everyone that agency biologists know more about grouse than the DNR Board blindly believes. As agency biologists told the Board a year ago, hunting typically causes “compensatory mortality,” meaning hunters basically shoot the same number of grouse that would have eventually died in winter from illness, predation or harsh weather. Therefore, shorter hunting seasons won’t boost grouse numbers.
One can only hope the Board never tasks the DNR with conducting annual surveys to assess our rabbit and squirrel populations, and carefully estimate their annual harvest totals. The more scientific data you give some people, the more they abuse it.
At the first hint of dwindling bunny and squirrel numbers, the Board would blame late-season closures—Feb. 28 for rabbits, Jan. 31 for squirrels—for every hiccup, and declare another bogus emergency that deprives hunters of valuable winter recreation.
Patrick Durkin, @patrickdurkinoutdoors, is a free-lance writer who covers outdoors recreation in Wisconsin. Write to him at 721 Wesley St., Waupaca, WI 54981; or by e-mail at patrickdurkin56@gmailcom.