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Bird Hunting Spotlight: Black Hills Ruffed Grouse

Hunting the elusive ruffed grouse population in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Bird Hunting Spotlight: Black Hills Ruffed Grouse

If we lose ruffs from the Black Hills, it will be because we've grossly twisted this special place far from its natural state. (Photo By: Josh Tatman)

The remnants of an early season snowstorm blanketed the north slopes of the rolling mountains. A cold wind prodded us as we strode down an old logging road that descended into the forest. Ahead, our dogs worked the edges of the timber, burning off energy from the long morning drive.

We came to a steep draw lined with young aspen trees. We left the road and climbed up through the white trunks, reaching for their smooth, cool waists to avoid slipping in the loose snow. We topped out on a grassy bench between the aspens and hilltop ponderosa. Dan paused at a snow bank. “Look at this.” I joined him. There in the snow was a single track—the telltale imprint of a gallinaceous bird.

It was opening week of pheasant season in South Dakota. Dan Towsley and I were on a weekend hunting trip, but we weren’t dreaming of rooster flushes and full tailgates. Here, we knew we’d be lucky to find any birds—we were hunting the Black Hills and chasing rumors of ghosts.

The Black Hills are a mystery. They rise suddenly from the prairie with their dark, pine covered slopes visible over many miles of rolling grasslands. Like other foreland ranges in the region, they were formed at the same time as the Rocky Mountains. However, the Black Hills are so isolated that they aren’t considered part of the Rockies.

ruffed grouse sitting in a tree
Black Hills ruffed grouse might be the most isolated relict populations on the continent. (Photo By: James McCann)

These mountains have long been held sacred by the indigenous people of the plains. The Lakota (Thíthunwan) call them He Sápa, and consider them the center of the world. The Cheyenne (Tsistsistas), Kiowa (Ka’igwu), and numerous other tribes hold the Black Hills in similar regard. The ancestors of these historic tribes used this region for thousands of years.

Over the millennia since the last ice age, the Black Hills have become biologically isolated. There’s regionally common vegetation like ponderosa pine and aspens, but these low mountains also hold the westernmost stands of bur oak and isolated groves of paper birch. The Black Hills also contain isolated animal populations.

Ruffed grouse are abundant in the upper Midwest and parts of the Rockies. Between the two regions, remnant populations live in several foreland mountain ranges. They are separated from their nearest neighbors by over a hundred miles of prairie.

Hunters don’t pay them much attention. While there are seasons in both the South Dakota and Wyoming Black Hills, their scarcity makes it unlikely that a hunter could meet the three per day bag limit. They’re more likely to be shot incidentally by road hunters than to be pursued by wingshooters with dogs.

bird hunter holding a ruffed grouse
Elusive and wary, a Black Hills ruffed grouse is a true trophy.(Photo By: Josh Tatman)

Black Hills Ruffed Grouse Habitat

Casey Heimerl is a biologist with South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks and I asked her why few people pursue ruffed grouse in the Black Hills. “I find that if the cover looks so thick and gnarly that it would be miserable to walk though, it would have a good chance of holding ruffed grouse. This makes them very challenging to hunt. If you are able to track one down you only have a brief glance at the bird when they flush.”

Dan and I were up for the challenge. We tried to follow the tracks along the edge of the aspen grove. We found a few other day-old prints, but then they vanished. The dogs never hit scent, so we set off on a long traverse of a north facing slope, linking deer trails and logging roads. Dan followed Lefty, his nine-month-old German wirehair. I followed Bailey, my 13-year-old husky/shepherd cross. These hunting dogs were an odd couple. One, a pointer of excellent pedigree, the other, a flusher of no pedigree. Both are beautiful, birdy machines that we trusted to find the elusive grouse.  

The dogs scampered through golden aspen leaves that littered the surface of snowbanks and glowed like lost treasure in the low light. The humid smells of the forest floor permeated the still air. We reached the bottom of a hollow and broke out into a meadow. The remnants of an old cabin lay in a heap. The homestead was slowly being erased by the land, like the stories of those that inhabited it.

At first glance, it seems that the Black Hills have extensive habitat for ruffed grouse. Small creeks that trickle between the pine hills are lined with aspens and higher hillsides have big stands of birch trees. As we hiked through the forest, we realized that much of the available habitat lacks the ideal combination of shelter and food. When I had asked Casey about ideal ruffed grouse habitat, she said, “Young, dense aspen stands provide the best cover from inclement weather and predators while older mature aspens provide a valuable food resource in the winter from their flowering catkins.”  

Mosaic grouse habitat is disappearing in the Black Hills. “Fire suppression over the last 100 plus years has undoubtedly decreased aspen habitat,” says Matt Stefanich, a biologist with the Black Hills National Forest. “We have also noticed aspen clones succumbing to diseases across the Hills.” In absence of a natural fire regime, aspens slowly age out and are replaced by conifers. The aspens that remain tend to be older stands, with few of the thick patches of saplings that grouse love.

The dogs led the way as we ascended along the hollow, following yet another logging road. Dan stopped suddenly.

There, in a snowbank, was another set of bird tracks—bigger than the first we had seen. They were clearly several days old, but we excitedly examined them. They were the best evidence we’d seen of our quarry. Post-holing through snow, we followed the tracks up into aspens, where they quickly disappeared.

We looped down from the tracks, where the snowbanks dissipated. Both dogs flanked right. I was getting tired and hungry, so when my peripheral vision caught movement, it didn’t register at first. Then as it registered, I turned my head and saw a large grey phase ruffed grouse standing ten yards away, watching us.

The dogs hadn’t hit his scent, but we wanted them in on the action. We called them over. I’ve missed enough shots on ruffed grouse to know that no flush is a given. They can dart in any direction, at any altitude through the thick cover. I prayed that the dogs wouldn’t get in the way of a clear shot as Bailey and Lefty hit the scent.

Bailey spotted the bird and bounded into the flush. The bird swept low and right. I snapped two quick shots after it. The second shot tumbled the bird onto the forest floor, where Lefty happily swept it up for the retrieve. Dan and I cheered as I held the old drummer up to the light. We knew he was a gift. We took time to sit, soaking in the essence of this place before ascending to a tailgate lunch with sweeping ridgetop views under the steel sky.

husky dog with a dead ruffed grouse and shotgun
The author and his dog take a moment to reflect after bagging a Black Hills ruffed grouse. (Photo By: Josh Tatman)

After lunch we walked a few other covers, with Bailey delivering a fabulous track and flush on a yearling male. Satisfied for the day, we took the scenic route to our campsite, arriving just in time to set up in a cold rain. We got a roaring campfire going, its light dancing off the gnarled arms of the oaks that encircled the hollow. We felt that we were in the haunted hills of a Washington Irving story, not in the heart of the Great Plains.

The rain cleared off, and we sat enjoying the fire’s warmth. When we finally crawled into sleeping bags, a drizzle of rain began and continued through the night. The morning came with clear skies and a bright moon over the hills. When the sun’s rays finally filtered through the trees, our bones warmed enough to break camp.

We spent the day walking beautiful covers all over the Hills. The last leaves of aspen and birch shimmered in the bright sun. Our ridgetop views stretched far over the land. At one point, we heard a grouse drum. On another occasion, the dogs hit recent scent on a log. We never found birds, though. We returned home with two birds to show for two days of hunting. We were more than satisfied.

Past and Future   

Historical records suggest that ruffs were once considered common in the Black Hills. It’s uncertain if they will persist. “There are no current monitoring efforts being conducted on ruffed grouse so it is difficult to say," Casey told me. Matt Stefanich is hopeful. “I believe they will persist but [they] require assistance.”

Neither Wyoming nor South Dakota keep close tabs on hunter impacts, as they lump voluntary harvest surveys in with statewide data. Neither state conducts regular population estimates to compare with harvest numbers. Presumably, the few hunters that pursue them probably don't shoot enough to cause additive mortality.

At least in theory, allowing people to hunt these birds creates advocates for their conservation. However, no hunting organization currently funds ruffed grouse conservation in the Black Hills or elsewhere in the region.

Matt thinks there’s opportunity. “The Forest Service is always interested in developing partnerships with hunting or conservation-based entities.”  Swede Johnson of the Ruffed Grouse Society agrees. “The organization would love to get some chapters started in the inter-mountain areas…it would take some local folks getting together and holding a fundraiser to get the habitat work process started.”

Land managers are already improving ruffed grouse habitat in the Black Hills. A 2006 National Forest management plan called for roughly double the current aspen coverage. Matt said, “Increasing aspen has been achieved mostly by removing pine or spruce from mixed stands. Prescribed fire has also been used to promote aspen regeneration.”

Sportsmen and women could help implement these projects on both private and public lands. In addition, volunteers could conduct spring drumming surveys to create more accurate data on population trends. Hunters could potentially assist biologists by reporting harvests and collecting samples from harvested birds.

Species are most vulnerable to habitat degradation on the margins of their range. With robust populations of ruffed grouse in the Great Lakes region and the core of the central Rockies, should we worry about saving Black Hills ruffs?  

The health of peripheral populations serves as a predictor of future game bird numbers. Prairie chicken species once occupied most of the plains. Now their distribution is highly fragmented and they are quite vulnerable. Bobwhite quail have also seen their range slowly collapse. The same thing is happening to ruffed grouse in Appalachia and the lower Midwest.

Not only do peripheral populations indicate the overall health of the species, they are a source of genetic diversity that's key to survival into the future. If we care about saving any of them, we need to try to save all of them.

Ruffed grouse are also indicative of the health of the land. If we lose ruffs from the Black Hills, it will be because we've grossly twisted this special place far from its natural state. Losing ruffed grouse means losing what's left of the wild.

It gives me hope that ruffed grouse are still out there. They represent the potential for restoration. In the midst of human population growth and environmental damage, we can still change. We can choose to treasure wild creatures and the places they call home—not for any value to us, but for their inherent value. Till then, I hope these denizens of the wild continue to haunt the forests of He Sápa.

ruffed grouse feather and foot
The author stopped to admire the intricate detail and beauty of the ruffed grouse. (Photo By: Dan Towsley)
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