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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Push to Shorten Grouse Hunt Ignores Science

Wisconsin’s seven-citizen Natural Resources Board remains determined to deny hunters nearly four weeks of their late-season ruffed-grouse hunt, even though the early closure will do nothing to boost the bird’s population.

The Board, which sets policy for the Department of Natural Resources, voted unanimously Aug. 27 to direct the DNR to write an emergency rule to close grouse season for most of the state Jan. 5. The season is currently scheduled to run Sept. 14 through Jan. 31 in Zone A, which is everything west and north of a line from Kewaunee to Green Bay to Madison to the Illinois border along Interstate 90. So few grouse live in southeastern Wisconsin that its season runs Oct. 19 to Dec. 8, with a two-bird bag limit. The rest of the state has a five-bird daily bag limit.

DNR staff will present the emergency rule to the Board at its Sept. 24-25 meetings in Mishicot.

The Board used those same emergency powers to shorten the 2018-2019 grouse season, justifying its actions by stirring fears that grouse were in peril, supposedly from West Nile virus. It took that action afterspring 2018 grouse-drumming surveys documented a 34% decline statewide and 38% in the Northern region. Those low drumming numbers followed a then record-low grouse kill in autumn 2017 of 185,336 birds, a 30% drop from 262,943 in 2016.

The shortened 2018-19 season produced another record low harvest, an estimated 173,347 grouse. Hunters in Price, Douglas and Marinette counties reported the best results.

Is it possible the shortened season caused that 11,989-bird (6%) drop? Who knows? That would be mere speculation. But the same scientific survey that documented steep drumming declines in 2018 showed a big rebound this spring, up 41% statewide. That increase was fueled mainly by a 48% jump across the DNR’s Northern region and a 35% rise in the Central region. Those regions are Wisconsin’s primary ruffed-grouse range.

In other words, we have conflicting reports on the grouse population. Such uncertainty usually moves thoughtful professionals to seek more information. That’s especially true when time and circumstance allow such study and analysis. And because this concerns ruffed grouse, a fairly unpredictable species whose populations rise and fall over a nine- to 11-year cycle, we have time to learn without risking dire consequences.

As a wise man once said, “When in doubt, sit.” Unfortunately, that man isn’t on the DNR Board. This Board shows no interest in studying, assessing and learning if shortening the season would help.

The DNR Board just wants to eliminate a unique late-season small-game hunt. Its members are apparently convinced they can’t abide a handful of people shooting an occasional grouse off snow-frosted maple branches in January.

If the Board wants to spare more grouse from questionable hunting activities, why not ban ATV traffic on all public lands from mid-September through January except during November’s nine-day gun deer season? Why let ATV owners “road-hunt” backwoods trails, shooting grouse off stumps and branches while bird-dog hunters patiently walk and stalk those paths and two-tracks during the season’s prime time?

The Board certainly can’t justify its January closure as scientifically driven conservation policy. The only thing scientific it can reference is a 2018 DNR survey that found 67% of survey hunters favored the shorter season.

Surveys aren’t binding, of course, unless their results match a governing board’s preferences and prejudices. But that’s a shallow, convenient, even cowardly abuse of its emergency-orders authority. The DNR Board should not reduce hunting opportunities unless they’re protecting the resource. It should view these conflicting grouse data as an opportunity to engage the public in a scientific process. It should not assume grouse are in a tailspin. Neither should it assume the downturn is a fluke.

It should be working with the DNR to get at least three years of data for its West Nile virus assessment, assess grouse-hunting participation numbers, couple those results with ongoing drumming and harvest data, and then assess if we must curtail hunting opportunities. It could then go to the public, explain the data and possible actions, hold listening sessions, and eventually craft a plan and hold hearings.

This process should also include the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, especially its Turkey & Upland Game Committee, which the Board ignored the past year in its rush to crimp grouse season.After all, this is a big unknown; not an emergency. It’s not a forest fire, torrential flood or prolonged drought. We have time to work the existing process through the Congress, develop long-term plans shaped by scientific data, and ensure they have the flexibility toguide future regulations and management decisions.

In other words, this is an excellent time to finish crafting the state’s ruffed grouse management plan, and let that process and plan guide the decision. Instead, the Board is using the emerging grouse plan to make its emergency closure permanent. Part of that plan is to close grouse season on the first Sunday in January.

Wisconsinites expect more from our DNR Board, whose members are appointed to oversee an agency that’s supposed to use science to manage the public’s natural resources. By taking time for science and then standing behind verified data, the Board could have proven itself a responsible steward of that public trust.

Instead, they’re sewing distrust and doing nothing to benefit grouse and the future of grouse hunting.

Ruffed grouse harvests declined to record lows in 2017 and 2018, but grouse-drumming surveys this spring showed dramatic increases statewide. -- Gary Kraszewski photo

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