GREAT RAPIDS – Hunting trails aren’t much use unless they’re marked, cleared, accessible and mapped, and that’s where the Ruffed Grouse Society tries to make a difference.
The Minnesota chapter of the national conservation group is making targeted efforts to rejuvenate the hunter trail system in the Chippewa National Forest, including mowing trails to allow hunter access and improving habitat along routes prohibited to all motorized vehicles.
Many trails, laid out decades ago, have fallen into disrepair, with little or no signage or maintenance. The company received a $300,000 state grant from the Minnesota Legislative and Citizens’ Resource Commission for the effort that includes restoring and improving 200 trailheads and 80 miles of existing trails, l added 20 miles of new trails and updated online trail maps.
“There’s no point in having a trail that no one can find,” said Scott Johnson, Minnesota’s new conservation director for the Ruffed Grouse Society and the American Woodcock Society. “Part of our goal is to get a complete list of where these trails are, what the shape of the gates are, and to make sure they’re listed and signed correctly so people can find them.”
And because it’s more fun to see a few grouse when you’re walking in the woods in fall, the Ruffed Grouse Society is a designated forest stewardship partner with the U.S. Forest Service. The society researches the best places to conduct forest management for the benefit of grouse and woodcock. Then the group can sell that wood to loggers and reinvest the money in other habitat and trail work. The National Stewardship Program allows the Forest Service to tap into the expertise of conservation groups like the Society.
Young forest that grows after timber harvesting, particularly after aspen cutting, is considered prime habitat for grouse, woodcock and deer as well as troubled species like golden-winged warblers. Grouse also need tall, old aspens at certain times of the year as well as evergreens and just open areas.
“All of the money raised from the sale of the timber, and even more that we put in from other sources, is reinvested into habitat and forest access work,” Johnson said.
The company has also landed a series of conservation habitat grants from state coffers, such as the Outdoor Heritage Fund, which is funded by state sales tax dedicated to conservation efforts. The group has conducted targeted cutting, shearing and intentional burning on thousands of acres in northern Minnesota to improve habitat for moose, deer, grouse, woodcock and pollinators like butterflies and bees. . Over the past two years, the Ruffed Grouse Society has used $550,000 in state conservation grants to improve 2,770 acres of wildlife habitat at more than 450 sites.
Johnson noted that maintaining access for hunters who have chosen to walk rather than ride horses is important as motorized activities expand in the northern woods.
“Habitat is the most critical element of what we do, but access is also important,” Johnson said. “There is no doubt that these trails (for hunters) are becoming more and more important. … There are many more miles of forest roads and mountain bike trails than there are walking trails, so they are increasingly in demand.
Find the Chippewa National Forest Trails
A list of most of the Chippewa National Forest hunter trails is available at fs.usda.gov/activity/chippewa/recreation/hunting. The Chippewa National Forest boundary encompasses approximately 1.6 million acres of which the Forest Service owns/manages approximately 660,000 acres.
Minnesota DNR Grouse Management Areas
Minnesota has 49 Wildlife Management Areas that are managed for grouse habitat and hunter access. They range in size from 400 to 4,800 acres and contain over 184 miles of hiking trails for hunters. They are scattered across the northern half of Minnesota. Go to dnr.state.mn.us/hunting/grouse/index.html to find out where they are.
Minnesota DNR Walking Trails
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources maintains 253 hunter trails across the northern portion of the counties that provide more than 850 miles of forest trails open to public hunting. It’s on foot only – no motorized vehicles – offering quality chances of seeing ruffed grouse, woodcock, turkey and deer.
Most trails have parking areas, although some require roadside parking. The DNR usually contracts with private parties to mow, and the eventual cost to keep the trails clear is around $175 per mile.
All 253 trails are listed on an interactive map on the DNR website at dnr.state.mn.us/hunting/hwt. You can search for them by name or county, go to any area you want, and click on a trail to find out exactly where it is and how to get there.
If you have any questions about a specific trail or area, or the wildlife that may be found there, please contact a local MNR area wildlife office. You can view them at dnr.state.mn.us/areas/wildlife.
More grouse this year? Maybe not
While Wisconsin saw a drop in its annual grouse drumming count this spring, Minnesota saw an unexpected increase in drumming. Biologists expected another year or two as the bird’s mysterious 10-year cycle continued to decline. But last summer’s perfectly warm and dry nesting conditions probably allowed more chicks to survive and, coupled with good resting conditions in the snow in winter, may have kept more birds alive until now. ‘in spring.
That good fortune may have come to an abrupt end in May and June, however, when cold, wet weather likely hit the newborn chicks hard. Some wildlife biologists say there may have been very low grouse production in some areas, while others note that hen grouse may have nested during drier periods after their first brood failed.
Charlotte Roy, grouse research scientist for the Minnesota DNR, says she has heard reports of low nest success from DNR field staff and others in the woods.
“From the folks in the field I’ve spoken to, I don’t hear a lot of grouse chicks out there,” Roy said. “That can change. And I have reports of late broods, possibly after their first nest failed. … But re-nesting is usually not as productive as the first nests.
Roy said the drum count was an accurate reflection of more birds in the landscape in May. But that doesn’t necessarily mean more birds for hunters in October.
“Drum count is really not a reliable indicator of grouse available in the fall, at least not anymore,” she said. “There may be pockets of low numbers of grouse. But there will also be areas with good numbers. People have to move and they will find grouse.
Most of the birds in the bag are young
Data obtained by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources from its study of West Nile virus in grouse found that nearly two-thirds of the grouse shot each fall are birds of the year hatched that year. This means that each year’s brood success is critically important to the number of birds hunters see and capture each fall.
The Minnesota and Wisconsin ruffed grouse seasons begin Saturday, September 17. Minnesota’s season ends Jan. 1 and Wisconsin’s season ends Jan. 8. The daily limit in each state is five birds.
Pointy Tail season is closed again
Sharp-tailed grouse hunting season is closed again this year in Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota due to chronically low populations. Minnesota has a pointed-tail open season in the northwest counties that runs from September 17 through November 30.