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Concern over grouse numbers prompts emergency rule

August 30, 2019 by Beckie Gaskill

The Natural Resources Board held a special meeting Tuesday regarding an emergency rule for the 2019 ruffed grouse season. There has been much concern over grouse numbers in the state, which had declined in 2018, drumming surveys as well as a decline in the number of birds harvested by hunters, but corresponded somewhat with a declined number of days in the field reported by hunters. 

The 2019 surveys did show a rebound in numbers, but the reason for the decline was uncertain. West Nile, a disease affecting many species of birds, was suspected to have played a role, but that idea is uncertain. Test results from hunter harvested birds, as well as birds found dead in the wild, have yet to be returned to the Department of Natural Resources, Scot Karel told the NRB this week. Once those results do return, he said he would be presenting them to the board. 

Other factors such as habitat loss, competition with species such as turkeys, as well as other natural and manmade events and occurrences may have contributed to this as well. Research on those other factors is also ongoing, Karel said.

This summer, DNR upland wildlife ecologist Mark Witecha presented the 2019 drumming surveys as well as the 2018 harvest surveys to the NRB. He also presented the apparently rebounding numbers of the 2019 drumming surveys. The Northern Zone, he said at the time, which has the most favorable habitat for grouse, was up 48% over the previous year in these drumming surveys. That increase statewide was 41% overall. 

Grouse populations are cyclical in nature, so it is expected there would be differences from year to year in population estimates. However, 2018, and also 2019, should have been years of increasing populations, as the population numbers trend upward fo 8-11 years before down-turning again. Witecha told the board this summer population should be on the rise and peak within the next one to two years. This made the decline in number especially disconcerting. 

Board member Gar Zimmer, who is on the ruffed grouse committee, spoke this summer about a study done in Pennsylvania. The conditions of that study, he said, were much like Wisconsin and may have some bearing on grouse populations here. The study showed West Nile had the largest effect on grouse populations in poorer habitats. He said, at that time, this could be the “last straw” for some populations in the southern part of the state if it were to hold true here as well.

While the Ruffed Grouse Management Plan is tracking to be on time to be presented to the board at the January NRB meeting, an emergency rule was deemed by the Department to be necessary for the 2019 season. At that summer meeting, the board formally requested that an emergency rule be brought to them for their approval in August. In the 2018 season, an emergency rule was put into place to end the ruffed grouse season in Zone A on the Sunday nearest Jan. 5, rather than extend the season through the month of January. The board wished to have an emergency rule for this year with the same stipulations as last year. 

When asked, Karel said he expected the permanent rule, once it went through all of its steps, to make that true for the 2020 season as well, but it would be depend on the evaluation of the 2019 season. He also reiterated other factors such as habitat and competition are, and would continue to be, part of the grouse management plan being presented to the board, and moving forward. 

The board approved the emergency rule unanimously after just a few questions. Board members also stated they looked forward to the new ruffed grouse management plan as well as to looking at the permanent rule that may come out of that plan.

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