Efforts to expand the range of ruffed grouse in Alaska have been wildly successful.
“Ten years ago, I knew only four or five hunters in the Anchorage area who had upland bird dogs,” said Nick Steen, Alaska Fish and Game Department grouse researcher. “Now I know at least fifty people with upland bird dogs.”
Indeed, about 500 people showed up for recently organized Ruffed Grouse Society chapter fund-raisers in Fairbanks and Anchorage last spring, Steen said.
Although ruffed grouse are native north of the Alaska Range and in the Alaska Interior, they have not been found in other parts of the state.
For three years beginning in 1988, a total of 141 ruffed grouse were trapped in the Interior and released at various sites near Willow, Palmer and along the Glenn Highway. This year, the drumming of mate-seeking ruffed grouse had expanded 40 to 80 miles from each release site, Steen said, noting that “the expansion is way beyond what anyone had comprehended.
“The amazing thing is that the growth in ruffed grouse has occurred even though there has never been a closed season,” he said. “The day I released the first ruffed grouse, the bag limit was fifteen a day and thirty in possession with season that opened Aug. 10 and ran through March 31. The state didn’t differentiate between ruffed grouse and the spruce or sharp-tailed grouse.”
But most hunters voluntarily refrained from hunting the ruffed grouse, he said: “A lot of guys took a personal interest in protecting them.”
Two years ago, the state set the bag limit for ruffed grouse at two a day.
“At that point, we finally felt the population had expanded enough to encourage some harvest,” Steen said. “My best guess is that 500 ruffed grouse were taken by hunters in this region last year. That’s not bad for a 6-year-old population.”
Although the traditional way to hunt grouse in Alaska involves driving roads early in the morning and plinking the birds with a .22 rifle, a new cadre of Alaska hunters is going afield with shotguns and pointing dogs.
“You also see more interest in ptarmigan in the high alpine country,” Steen said.
But perhaps the best is yet to come.
From Fairbanks to Tok, native ruffed grouse numbers have been increasing 20 percent a year from the lows of 1990, Steen said. And starting last year, Alaska Fish and Game employees have been releasing ruffed grouse on the Kenai Peninsula.
“There’s some fantastic habitat down there,” Steen said. “Considering how well they’ve done north of Anchorage, there’s a chance that the Kenai could have some of the best ruffed grouse hunting in the country in the next five to ten years.”
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