Why the heyday of game bird hunting in Manitoba might be behind us

Changes to the landscape and forest-management practices over past decades have led to reduced game-bird populations in Manitoba.

Experts say you probably won’t experience hunting as your grandfather did

CBC News reporter Jacques Marcoux's late grandfather after a successful ruffed grouse harvest some time in the early 1960s. (Jacques Marcoux/CBC News)

Between 35,000 and 40,000 Manitobans make their way towards fields, forests and marshland across the province on hunting expeditions of all kinds each fall.

For many these annual outings are deeply-rooted family traditions that are passed down generation after generation. But if you're like many among the younger cohort of hunters today, you know — at least anecdotally — that what constitutes a successful harvest is not what it was decades ago.

CBC News reporter Jacques Marcoux's late grandfather George s Chaput (right) and his former hunting partner Host Schmidtke after a successful hunt in Sandilands Provincial park area in in the 1960s. (Jacques Marcoux/CBC News)

Ask any game bird hunter — in the Prairies this generally refers to ruffed, spruce and sharp-tailed grouse — and they will tell you that unlike the scenes from their grandfather's old family photo album, they have come home empty-handed more than they care to admit.

As it turns out, this is not simply a nostalgia-driven bias; there's actually some truth to these observations.

High and low population cycles

According to Frank Baldwin, Manitoba Sustainable Development's game bird manager, it's nearly impossible to accurately gauge grouse populations. But research shows they seem to fluctuate in large 10-year cycles based on a few factors.

"[Ruffed] grouse don't do well in habitats that are stagnant," said Baldwin.

A male Ruffed Grouse in courtship display. (Bill Perks)

He says while it may seem a little backwards, ruffed grouse need their habitat to be disturbed either naturally or through human activity fairly regularly in order to thrive.

"The reason they like that early successional habitat is that's where their food supply is. Berries thrive in the understory, when there's not a real large canopy. Once you get those mature trees that have a canopy that provide that shade, you don't get things like high-bush cranberries or some of the other berry bushes," he said.

As a result, Baldwin said that today's effective wildfire management practices and certain logging restrictions partly explain why grouse hunters are no longer experiencing the cyclical population peaks of the past.

A sharp-tailed grouse in open grasslands. (Courtesy: Sharp-tails Plus Foundation Inc)

In the case of sharp-tailed grouse, more commonly found around farmlands in central and western Manitoba, human activity and development has had a direct impact on its populations.

"Sharptail is a bird that has declined across the continent as agriculture has changed the landscape," Baldwin said, adding without adequate nesting coverage, sharp-tailed grouse have difficulty thriving

Grouse Guardians

South of Neepawa, Man., Sharp-tails Plus Foundation member Bill Burns is marking nesting areas to facilitate the gather of egg shell samples for genetic testing purposes. (Terry McKay)

In light of these changes, several grouse advocacy groups have formed over time in Manitoba to further study game bird populations and to advocate on their behalf.

Terry McKay, president of the Sharp-tails Plus Foundation, says his volunteer organization works to identify private landowners across the province whom they call "Grouse Guardians."

"By finding individuals who are really committed … they're willing to identify their properties as being sensitive to the birds and putting up signs and things like that; we really see that as the wave of the future," says McKay.

Similar models have been employed in community-driven conservation efforts of non-game bird species in Manitoba. Have a soot-covered chimney swift nesting in your chimney? Commit to conserving that habitat and you can be crowned a "Swift Champion."

McKay says his organization is currently working with landowners near Neepawa, Broomhill, Fisher Branch and the Hartney area to make their properties more sharp tail-friendly.

In addition, Sharp-tail Plus just recently completed a three-year study on genetic testing of grouse populations to better understand their movement patterns and diversity levels.

McKay says the province will be launching a survey for hunters this year in an attempt to gather more data on provincewide harvest counts.

Terry McKay is the president of the Sharp-tails Plus Foundation. (Terry McKay)