The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced Monday that the hunting season for sharp-tailed grouse in east-central Minnesota will be closed this fall — and likely in future years — because the population of the upland bird continues to plummet in the region.

Numbers declined 32% in the east-central region in just two years, with the number of leks — mating grounds where the birds gather each spring — dropping from 30 in 2019 to just 18 in 2021. As recently as 2010 there were at least 70 leks in the area.

No survey was conducted in 2020 due to COVID-19 restraints on DNR staff.

The DNR continues to work with the Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society to explore habitat management options for the birds that require big expanses of open land. That type of habitat has been shrinking in the east-central region which includes Carlton, Aitkin, Pine and southern St. Louis counties.

“Sharp-tailed grouse require areas of approximately 1 to 3 square miles of grassland and brushland, so managing their habitats often requires cooperation between multiple land owners,” said Charlotte Roy, DNR grouse project leader, in a statement. “We’ve known for some time that the large, open areas of grassland and brushland that sharp-tailed grouse need are changing and becoming less suitable for these birds.”

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The birds thrived in the early 20th century when forests were cleared and burned and open meadows were maintained for small farming operations. But as open lands revert back to forests, or are converted to row crops or other uses, sharp-tailed grouse numbers have declined.

If conditions don’t improve soon the east-central population could fade entirely, officials noted Monday.

“The east-central range sharp-tailed grouse populations currently exist … with limited and disjunct habitats where harvest of even a few birds could seriously impact sustainability and genetic diversity within these isolated populations,” said Dave Pauly, president of the Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society.

In northwestern Minnesota, sharp-tailed grouse counts were similar this year to last.

Ruffed grouse drumming down

Minnesota’s ruffed grouse spring population counts were down in 2021 compared to 2020 as grouse numbers appear to be dropping away from a recent high in 2017.

The DNR announced Monday that the statewide drumming average was 1.3 drums per stop, down from 1.6 drums last year and a recent high of 2.1 drums per stop in 2017.

Drum counts were 1.4 drums per stop in the northeast survey region; 1.1 drums per stop in the northwest; 0.8 drums per stop in the central hardwoods; and 0.9 drums per stop in the southeast survey region.

Ruffed grouse populations tend to peak and and then drop on 10-year cycles, the DNR notes, although the exact reasons for those cycles are not fully understood,

Ruffed grouse populations are surveyed each spring by counting the number of male ruffed grouse heard drumming on established routes throughout the state’s forested regions. Drumming is a low sound produced by males as they beat their wings rapidly and in increasing frequency to signal the location of their territory. Drumming displays also attract females that are ready to begin nesting.

The spring drumming counts are an important indicator of the general ruffed grouse breeding population. But because most of the grouse hunters' bag each fall are hatched that same year, the survival of new chicks each summer is also a major factor in how many grouse hunters see and shoot each autumn. Warm, dry weather this summer should mean good survival of recently hatched chicks.

Minnesota’s ruffed grouse hunting season opens Sept. 18. More information about ruffed grouse hunting and management is available on the DNR grouse hunting page at dnr.state.mn.us/hunting/grouse/index.html.