After a disappointing fall season for many in 2017, Minnesota grouse hunters got more bad news last week when the Department of Natural Resources reported this spring's grouse drumming counts down 29 percent from last year.
Even worse news: Last year's poor season apparently came during the current "peak'' of the long-term grouse population cycle, meaning grouse numbers will probably keep falling for a few years.
"Surveys indicate the peak occurred last year," said Charlotte Roy, DNR grouse project leader. "Grouse populations tend to rise and fall on a decade-long cycle and counts this year are pointing to the peak lasting only one year this cycle."
The brief population peak is not unheard of, Roy noted, but is disappointing compared to years when grouse numbers remain near the peak for several years before falling off.
The cycles have in past years followed a 10-year cycle, with higher peaks every 20 years. No one knows for sure why that happens, although increased predator populations and winter weather - namely the availability of soft snow to roost in and the amount of winter rain - have been the focus of recent research.
It's also not clear why more recent 10-year peaks in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s have been near two drums per stop when they were closer to three in the 1950s and 1970s.
This year, northeastern Minnesota, the heart of the state's ruffed grouse range, averaged 1.7 drums per stop compared to one in the northwest and 0.9 per stop in the southeast region and central hardwoods.
Drumming sounds are produced by males as they beat their wings rapidly and in increasing frequency to signal the location of their territory. Drumming attracts females that are ready to mate.
Ruffed grouse populations are surveyed by DNR and other agency field personnel counting the number of male ruffed grouse heard drumming on established routes throughout the state's forested regions. The survey has measured 122 routes for 69 years.
Last year's drumming count was high, but that didn't translate into many birds seen during the fall. That's because cold and wet weather during spring nesting and brood hatching can impact how many new birds enter the population.
The Wisconsin DNR last month reported their ruffed grouse drumming count down 34 percent.
Sharptail grouse numbers also down
The Minnesota DNR reports an average of 9.3 sharptail grouse at each mating area - called a lek - this spring. That's down from recent counts as high as 13.6, but up from recent lows of just 7.0. The 9.3 grouse per lek is about the same as the long-term average.
Carlton County's Bradford is ATV safety instructor of the year
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has named Gale Bradford, of Wright in Carlton County, as its ATV safety instructor of the year.
Bradford, who is the lead ATV safety coordinator for the Evergreen PAC ATV club, has been involved with the club for 11 years and been an ATV safety instructor for more than seven years.
Bradford stepped into the role after her mentor, Rita Butterfield, the DNR's 2009 ATV safety instructor of the year, died unexpectedly. Bradford has a passion for youth ATV training and is committed to continuing the work of her mentor.
"Gale's dedication to ATV safety is impressive," said Conservation Officer Amber Ladd, who patrols the McGregor area and nominated Bradford for the award. "She goes above and beyond to make sure youth riders who want to take safety training have the opportunity to do so."
Last summer, for example, Bradford's club had one class that grew unexpectedly large. Rather than turn away students, she organized more volunteers and set up two sets of courses. Bradford's club last summer certified more than 100 students, which is more than it ever had. The club offers courses in Aitkin and Carlton counties.
DNR conservation officers work closely with the nearly 1,000 volunteer ATV safety instructors throughout the state who deliver ATV safety training certification.
For details on safety courses and training, go to mndnr.gov/safety/vehicle/atv/index.html. For more information on ATV regulations in the state, go to mndnr.gov/regulations/ohv/index.html.