In recent years, there has been a good deal of concern among stakeholders around the declining ruffed grouse populations in Wisconsin. In fact in 2017, the Wisconsin Conservation Congress went to the Natural Resources Board (NRB), asking for help in looking into what the issues and stressors may have been to these populations. Many had come forward with concerns, and the board took action, asking the Department to come up with a plan, and to look into issues that surrounded the ruffed grouse.
In other states, such as Pennsylvania, research was already being conducted around West Nile disease and the possible ramifications it may have on ruffed grouse populations. In Wisconsin, hunters were asked to help with research and birds were tested. According to DNR upland wildlife ecologist Mark Witecha, this study is now in its second of three years. It was thought the disease may have enough affect on smaller populations that it could effectively wipe them out in areas where habitat was not what it once was, and where populations were diminished for other reasons as well. While it is too early to tell the exact effects of the disease until research is complete, most speculate it has had an impact.
At this month’s NRB meeting, Witecha came before the board with a final ruffed grouse plan for the state, the first of its kind. He stated 2,400 surveys went out to ruffed grouse hunters, with 1,700, or an incredible 70%, of those surveys returning to the department. While many of the people who attended one of the three in-person meetings in Spooner, Rhinelander or River Falls last year were opposed to a shorter season, most understood something needed to change.
“One thing that was abundantly clean in this was that hunters favor a more conservative season framework than what we currently have,” Witecha said. With that, he said, the stakeholder team, made up of representatives from many wildlife and forestry organizations and departments, went to work to craft a ruffed grouse plan for the next 10 years that could be reviewed every two years by the board, as most wildlife plans within the state are.
In the plan were eight goals, which were broken down into 20 objectives and 36 strategies or action items. The concerns and ideas from stakeholders were broken down into the eight final goals of the plan. Those areas included general management, habitat, population, partnerships, research and monitoring, harvest management, hunter experience and outreach and education.
One of the bigger changes brought about in the plan was moving of the zone lines for the ruffed grouse season. The previous Zone B took most of the south-eastern corner of the state and separated it from the remaining, Zone A, section of the state. Here the bag limit was 3 and the season a bit shorter, from mid-October to early December. The new plan moved that boundary to also encompass the Driftless Area in southwestern Wisconsin. The line, as depicted above on the map, runs from approximately LaCrosse, across the state through Juneau and Adams County along Highway 21, then north to take Highway 10 across Winnebago, Calumet and Manitowoc counties.
Historically, Witecha said, the driftless area has had high ruffed grouse populations, but over the last 30 years, those populations have dipped to historic lows. The change to include that area still offers hunter opportunity, but limits harvest somewhat with a narrower season and lower bag limits.
Bag limits were maintained in Zone A, but season dates were adjusted somewhat in the new plan. The season would now end on the Sunday nearest to Jan. 6, rather than continue on through the end of January. This, he said, more closely mirrors other upland bird hunting seasons such as pheasant and fall turkey. The season, then, would also more closely resemble that of neighboring states Michigan and Minnesota. It was felt this would be the “best balance of biological and social factors” of ruffed grouse management, according to Witecha’s presentation to the board this month.
Ruffed grouse priority regions would also be established under the new plan. Those regions, the Northern Forest, Central Forest and Driftless Area, would have focal areas developed within them, leveraging partnerships to extend the limited resources available within the department for things such as habitat work.
Habitat was one key area found to be the biggest “bang for the buck,” in the plan. Proper habitat, he said, would allow the species to better withstand outside stressors such as predators, weather and disease. Working with partners, including state, national and county forests, habitat improvements and best management practices (BMPs) could be put into play and were encouraged in the new plan. From there, the BMPs could be used and incorporated into young forest management plans for not only county, state and national forests, but also for those land owners enrolled in the Managed Forest Law (MFL) program.
As pointed out by former board member and board liaison to the Ruffed Grouse Committee, Gary Zimmer, a vibrant forest industry would be an integral part of the plan, with 2.4 million acres in 30 county forests, there was a great opportunity to help this species, which has been one of the top five hunted species in the state for decades, he said.
While managing young forests is similar for deer and grouse, the area needed to make an impact on grouse can be much smaller. Male grouse, Zimmer said, spend all of their life in just a 12-acre area, with females’ range a bit bigger at 40 acres, due to rearing and brooding activities. This means even land owners with smaller parcels can make a positive impact on ruffed grouse populations locally, with proper management.
Expanding partnerships was also proposed in the new plan. The department currently works with the Wisconsin Young Forest Partnership, the Ruffed Grouse Society and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, with which they jointly fund two private lands’ biologist positions as forest wildlife specialists. These individuals help private land owners in northern Wisconsin manage their land for wildlife. This is done free of charge for the land owner. They can also help landowners enroll in programs that will help pay for habitat work. Potential new partnerships highlighted were with both the Wisconsin County Forest Association and the U.S. Forest Service.
In the economic study completed by the department, it was found the state was truly a destination for hunters who looked to pit themselves against the ruffed grouse. Zimmer, in fact, said the state ranked third in the nation for grouse harvest.
“We have hunters from throughout the United States that come here specifically to hunt ruffed grouse,” Witecha said. “And we would like to get a better handle on what their economic impact is, specifically in our northern communities.” This would be used as a promotional tool to promote management on a wider scale, he said.
There are also opportunities to expand outreach, including improved hunter tools and expanding citizen science projects. Those projects include drumming surveys and West Nile monitoring. Through outreach and education, the department, and other stakeholders, hope to increase volunteer interest and participation in citizen science efforts as they relate to the species.
A great deal of time and effort went into the plan, which was well supported by the Wisconsin Conservation Congress and others. Zimmer said there was a great deal of open and frank discussion surrounding the best courses of action, and the results did not come easy.
“It would be naïve to say we’ve addressed all the concerns,” Zimmer said to the board. “But it’s a great first step.”
The 2020-2030 grouse plan was passed unanimously by the board, and will undergo a review by the board every two years.