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Biologist hopes study will shed light on spruce grouse in the North Country

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 7/14/18

REGIONAL— They’ve been called “fool’s hens” or Canada grouse, and they’ve long been a resident species in much of northern Minnesota. And at a time when the ranges of many wildlife …

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Biologist hopes study will shed light on spruce grouse in the North Country

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REGIONAL— They’ve been called “fool’s hens” or Canada grouse, and they’ve long been a resident species in much of northern Minnesota. And at a time when the ranges of many wildlife species are shifting along with climate change, Department of Natural Resources biologists are hoping a new study will give them a better handle on the habits and the haunts of this boreal species.

“It’s really amazing how little we know about them,” said Charlotte Roy, a DNR biologist based in Grand Rapids who is heading up the study. “We’re hoping to develop methods to determine population trends and range changes,” Roy said. “We expect range changes in the species… we expect them to shift to the north.”

Roy has been working for four years just to develop a method to study spruce grouse, which spend much of their lives deep in the coniferous woods of northcentral and northeastern Minnesota. As their name suggests, they favor spruce forests, but also do well in jack pine stands, where they survive during the winter months eating mostly conifer needles.

How many of them actually live in the state? That’s not at all clear, said Roy. Spruce grouse are easy to overlook in the forest, because they spend a lot more time in trees, usually in dense forests, and rarely flush when humans walk by. That can make them easy to overlook despite their size— and that makes studying them or assessing their population in the state particularly difficult.

Determining the range of the species is somewhat easier. They can be found in the right habitat throughout the Arrowhead and, according to Roy, their range extends as far west as Red Lake. From there, the population dwindles pretty quickly as the forest transitions to prairie.

While the DNR does conduct hunter harvest surveys during the grouse season, the results provide only the roughest of estimates, and they’ve varied widely over the years, depending on how many ruffed grouse hunters are out in the woods. Hunters rarely target spruce grouse, which have a darker meat and a gamier taste than their much more delectable cousins, so they are most frequently shot by hunters due to misidentification.

Back in 2006, small game harvest data suggested that hunters harvested as many as 26,000 spruce grouse. In 2015, however, the estimate was as low as 9,856.

Whether those differences reflect a real change in the population is tough to tell, and without better data, Roy said it’s difficult for the DNR to make management decisions regarding the species. Currently, spruce grouse are a legal game species, but are also a species of special concern. Should new research document that they are becoming increasingly rare their status could eventually change.

Any such change is unlikely to happen any time soon. Roy said it could be a few years before she’s gathered enough data to really be useful.

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