The idea to build a massive hunting trail in the heart of big-time fishing country is looking better every day.
But even before Monday’s announcement by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources that ruffed grouse counts were up, the Star of the North Trail currently being constructed in Beltrami Island State Forest was being lauded by pretty much everyone with any knowledge of the expansive hunting trail just down the road from Lake of the Woods in northwestern Minnesota.
A piece in the fall issue of Northland Outdoors magazine (subscribe for free for future magazines at http://www.northlandoutdoors.com/subscribe/), scheduled to publish Aug. 1, tells the ever-growing story of this fast-growing trail network. To be used primarily for hunting ruffed grouse and woodcock, the trail includes a mix of walk-in and motorized access — nearly 70 miles in all — and is a partnership between the Lake of the Woods chapter of the Ruffed Grouse Society and the DNR. According to that story, 20 miles of the trail have been completed, and 30 miles could be ready by the fall grouse hunting season.
There’s also been talk of fat-tire biking opportunities on the trail. With fat bikes growing in popularity in the Northland in recent years, that makes an already big trail story even bigger. Throw in increased ruffed grouse numbers, and the future indeed appears bright for the Star of the North Trail.
And for ruffed grouse hunters across the state.
In a release Monday, the DNR said ruffed grouse spring drumming counts were up 18 percent statewide over last year, according to a survey conducted by the agency. Ruffed grouse populations are surveyed by counting the number of male ruffed grouse heard drumming — a low sound produced by males as they beat their wings to signal the location of their territory — on established routes throughout the state’s forested regions.
“Ruffed grouse populations tend to rise and fall on a 10-year cycle and counts this year are typical of what we expect during the rising phase of the cycle, which we are seeing now,” Charlotte Roy, DNR grouse project leader, said in the release.
This year, DNR staff and cooperators from 14 organizations surveyed 126 routes across the state, and the survey indicates that there were 1.3 drums per stop statewide in 2016 — averages during 2013, 2014 and 2015 were 0.9, 1.1 and 1.1, respectively. Counts vary from about 0.6 drums per stop during lean years to about 2.0 during years of high abundance.
In the northeast survey region, the core of Minnesota’s grouse range, counts were 1.5 drums per stop in 2016 (up 16 percent). In the northwest region, which would include the Beltrami forest and Star of the North Trail, there were 1.1 drums per stop (up 9 percent). In the central hardwoods, it was 0.8 drums per stop, and in the southeast region, 0.8 drums per stop.
Along with a story on the grouse trail in the fall magazine, there’s also a piece on sharp-tailed grouse: For several years, a group of northeastern Minnesotans has been traveling to the edge of oil country and the Northland, hunting sharptails on Montana’s wide-open prairies.
Not that Minnesota doesn’t have “sharpies” — it does. But while numbers of ruffed grouse are up fairly significantly, sharptail numbers may be down slightly, the DNR said in that same release.
“The average number of sharp-tailed grouse was similar this year compared to 2015, but we may be looking at a decline when considering changes in the number of leks counted or changes at the same leks counted in both years,” Roy said.
To count sharp-tailed grouse, observers look for males displaying on traditional mating areas, which are called leks or dancing grounds.
According to that DNR release, comparisons of the same leks counted in both years indicate that counts per lek were down in the northwest region and statewide. In the east-central region, birds counted per lek were statistically unchanged, but fewer leks were counted, likely indicating that birds are combining into fewer leks but maintaining the average lek size, the DNR said.
This year’s statewide average of 9.5 sharp-tailed grouse per lek was similar to the long-term average since 1980, according to the agency.
The DNR’s 2016 grouse survey report, which contains information on ruffed grouse and sharp-tailed grouse, is available online at www.mndnr.gov/hunting/grouse.