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Grouse hunters can volunteer to help collect samples for West Nile virus study

A male ruffed grouse stands alert on his drumming log in May 2017 in Beltrami Island State Forest. Drumming counts were down 29 percent from last year but slightly higher than 2016. Minnesota's ruffed grouse and sharptail seasons open Saturday, Sept. 16. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald) 1 / 2
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources2 / 2

The DNR this fall will collect blood and tissue samples from ruffed grouse that hunters shoot in the Bemidji and Grand Rapids areas to test the birds for West Nile virus.

Test kits now are available at regional DNR offices in Bemidji and Grand Rapids, and the goal is to test 400 birds, said Ted Dick, DNR forest game bird coordinator.

The DNR is collaborating on the study with Wisconsin and Michigan, and the Ruffed Grouse Society funded the test kits, Dick said. The impact of the mosquito-borne disease on grouse hasn't been closely studied in Minnesota, but research in Pennsylvania has suggested West Nile may affect grouse populations in that state, especially in areas with marginal habitat.

"It's something Midwestern states are starting to look at," Dick said. "Hopefully, it will tell us some things."

Numbers aren't yet available, but Dick says he wouldn't be surprised if last year's ruffed grouse harvest was down 25 percent to 30 percent from the 2016 season, when hunters shot nearly 309,000 birds.

"There are people around that I've hunted with a long time that are serious hunters who said last year was their worst season ever, and I would call it my worst season ever," Dick said. "It just didn't make sense to have a drumming count that good and then hunting be that bad."

Last year's season might have left disgruntled hunters in its wake, but there's no disputing the ruffed grouse's standing as the king of upland game birds in Minnesota. Some 100,000 hunters, give or take a few thousand, hit the woods in pursuit of ruffed grouse every fall, Dick said.

"The bottom line is if you put in the time, if you spend some time out there walking with or without a dog, sooner or later, you're going to run into some memorable action and have some fun," Dick said. "It's hard to say — you never really know until you get out there. Even on the years when the bird numbers are lower, it's still fun.

"It's one of the highlights of the year."

Seasons for rabbits, squirrels and sandhill cranes (northwest region) also open Saturday, Sept. 15. More info: mndnr.gov.

Rules of the hunt

Here's a look at season dates and bag limits for ruffed grouse, spruce grouse, sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge in Minnesota:

• Ruffed grouse and spruce grouse: Sept. 15 through Jan. 1; daily limit 5 combined, possession limit 10 combined.

• Sharp-tailed grouse: Sept. 15-Nov. 30 (northwest), Oct. 13-Nov. 30 (east-central); limit 3 daily, 6 in possession.

• Hungarian partridge: Sept.15-Jan. 1; limit 5 daily, 10 in possession.

• More info: mndnr.gov.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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