Grouse numbers may never return to what they once were. Grouse hunters know the bird population is down and has been for many years, calling into question the theory of aspen bud cycles and their impact on grouse numbers, a theory formulated by Cloquet's Gordon Gullion, who spent decades researching ruffed grouse.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is now looking at the West Nile Virus as a possible cause for low grouse numbers.
But I feel there is something greater at work. I fear the ruffed grouse may be a canary in the coal mine.
I've hunted deer in Itasca County since 1970. The area I hunt once was wooded and wild with a wonderfully diverse habitat. But during the past 10 years it largely has been logged off. Deforested would be the better term. The grouse population now seems to be way down, and deer numbers seemingly have plummeted. The habitat is slowly being eliminated.
There always has been a successful wolf pack in the area where I hunt. In the past, the pack hunted the entire region to take deer. Now, after the logging, the deer are forced to concentrate in the ever-shrinking stands of old-growth forest. They need shelter in late winter more than food. The loss of habitat has made it easy for the wolves. They know where the deer are concentrated. Wolves seem to be flourishing, and deer numbers, especially mature bucks, won't come back until a diverse habitat returns - if it ever does.
This brings me to public land management. In March, the DNR said the state was increasing timber sales from 800,000 to 870,000 cords per year. The department said in a statement that, "Over the past two decades, the DNR has worked to reduce an oversupply of older-aged aspen on DNR-managed forest lands. That oversupply has been largely eliminated. ... As a result, future aspen harvest levels will gradually decrease from 400,000 cords annually to 360,000 cords."
Gullion stated that grouse need a mix of three distinct and separate ages of aspen in order to thrive. These ages were younger than 10 years; up to 20 years old; and older, more-mature aspen. This is a circle of life nature perfected - three legs of a triad upon which grouse, a large part of the deer population, and other species rely. Knock out the mature aspen leg of the triad and the whole thing comes tumbling down.
Could our own DNR, by working to largely eliminate the supply of older, more-mature aspen, in the interests of wood-products industries, be partly responsible for lower grouse numbers and struggling deer populations due to the loss of habitat?
As much as the DNR and Commissioner Tom Landwehr may want you to believe that timber harvests are good for wildlife, the truth is that when large areas are logged off and the habitat is destroyed, so is an area's usefulness to wildlife.
When you're out grouse hunting and walking through timber-harvested areas, those areas the DNR and its commissioner seem to want you to believe is wonderful cover, a monoculture of miles of young aspen trees can be observed, illustrating what has happened to forest diversity. Aspen growth is so rapid it out-competes other species of trees. Harvested areas, as a result, are nearly devoid of conifers and other cover trees that grouse need for survival. Grouse do not live by aspen alone.
Even the Ruffed Grouse Society has stated that in a high-quality habitat of young and old aspen and other species, a virus has less impact on grouse. Such a habitat leaves the birds in better physical condition to produce more young each spring. Quality diverse habitat is the linchpin for all successful wildlife species.
To be fair, Gullion believed in harvesting trees to create young aspen for breeding and as a food source for grouse. But he also believed in logging smaller tracts of land, a plan that would maintain the balance of the triad and the diversity of our forests. He never foresaw the scale and scope of modern, mechanized timber harvesting.
There seems to be no evidence to explain the low grouse numbers and struggling deer population other than the destruction of habitat and the forest monoculture left in the wake of modern timber harvesting. Diversity is being upended. Stated more accurately, it is being erased.
Come to the George Washington State Forest and walk with me, and you'll see areas where you can look for miles over the rubble of timber harvests.
No habitat, no diversity, no wildlife: that's my theory.
Mike Ribich of Grand Rapids has been a grouse hunter for 55 years.