Biologists believe populations down
Although they have virtually no money for formal surveys, Washington biologists speculate that forest grouse populations have been lower than average in the past few years.
The harvest of ruffed, spruce and blue grouse for 2008 was 101,685, state surveys show. The average number of forest grouse harvested each year in the state during the 2003-2007 seasons was 117,686. Stevens County in northeastern Washington and Okanogan County produced the largest number of grouse taken in those years.
But reports in August and early September suggest that grouse broods may have suffered from the cool wet spring as poorly as lowland pheasants.
“I’ve seen no grouse broods to date,” Pat Fowler, wildlife biologist in Walla Walla, said in late August.
This reporter scouted prime Stevens County grouse habitat spanning a 2,000-foot elevation range at the end of August. My English setter had five solid points. Each was a single bird; no broods.
Ruffed grouse are found around riparian areas and hardwood forests, while blue grouse favor evergreen forests and spruce grouse “are tied to lodgepole pine,” said Mick Cope, state game bird manager.
About 40,000 hunters pursued forest grouse during Washington’s 2008 season, down from 42,000 in 2007 and far from the 102,000 who hunted in 1987.
The drop occurred in part because of lack of public access and the apparent low bird populations aggravated perhaps by wet spring weather conditions for the past two years.
But hunter surveys also have shown another reason for the decline of grouse hunters, Cope said.
“People have less time available. They have a lot more commitments and less free time,” he said.
Still, grouse hunters are a devoted lot, in Washington and elsewhere. While some grouse are shot by deer or elk hunters during the modern firearm seasons, the bulk are taken before those seasons open in October, Cope said.
“There’s still a number of people who specifically target grouse,” he said.
In Idaho, there isn’t much concern for forest grouse numbers. The seasons were opened a few days earlier this year and they have been extended a full month, closing Jan. 31.