Column: Help needed from hunters on grouse opener

ESCANABA — As if there isn’t enough to be concerned about, this year hunters are being asked to again work in concert with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) as cooperators. The difference this year is an added request to monitor wildlife and report issues related to disease in ruffed grouse.

The surveillance efforts in the western Upper Peninsula for deer to see if chronic wasting disease (CWD) has been found are at peak. The Michigan Natural Resources Commission (NRC) and MDNR Wildlife Division have ramped up efforts to make the public aware of the potential and set regulations that have been reviewed by all parties concerned to keep CWD in check if and when it is found. The ultimate goal is to keep the U.P., CWD free!

Last December, the MDNR reported finding the presence of West Nile Virus (WNV) a form of bird flu in Michigan’s ruffed grouse population. According to the MDNR, “There were a total of 12 grouse found to have WNV statewide in 2017. Five birds collected from August through October, including two found dead and three that were shot by hunters, were submitted for testing to the MDNR’s Wildlife Disease Laboratory in Lansing, where WNS was confirmed.”

Now before anyone puts the shotgun away, the report also indicates that, “there is no evidence of human infection from eating properly cooked game that has been infected with WNV. It is a standard level of protection to cook wild game meat thoroughly, to an internal temperature of 170-180 degrees. Hunters should wear gloves when handling or cleaning (all) game.”

Other states, including Pennsylvania since 2014, have been studying the effects of WNV on ruffed grouse populations. No clear consensus has been reached among researchers. WNV is found in all but three of the contiguous United States, and has been present in Michigan for 16 years. The disease is strongly associated with ravens, crows and jays, hawks and owls and several other non-game species. It is, at this time, being referred to as a “stressor” on grouse populations and it can be said that the MDNR is asking for help to see if location of find in relation to habitat is a factor.

The MDNR report also indicates that in 2018, just over 200 animals have been confirmed with WNV from 60 of Michigan’s 83 counties — including all 15 counties in the U.P. The ruffed grouse testing positive for the virus included two from Iron County and one each from Delta, Roscommon and Missaukee counties.

According to Al Stewart, MDNR upland game specialist, “The most important activity that can be done is to maintain and create vigorous young forest habitat (primarily aspen) that is composed of multi-age classes. Michigan has high-value ruffed grouse habitat within the areas of the state, especially in the U.P. With WNV on the horizon, it will be even more paramount that we continue to focus on early successional forest management.” This philosophy is shared in the management of many upland game species and is a point of focus being pushed by the UP Sportsmen’s Alliance on state public lands purchased through hunter’s dollars.

The MDNR is hoping to collect 400 samples from four regions in the northern Lower Peninsula and UP during the September through November 14th grouse hunting season. Birds taken from Chippewa, Dickinson, Iron, Luce, Mackinac and Marquette Counties in the UP are the focus this year.

Hunters who want to participate in the program can request a free sampling kit through the MDNR. Sampling of blood has to be done within the first 30 minutes after the kill in order for the testing components to work. At the end of the day, the sample litmus strip needs to be thoroughly dried (on both sides) being exposed to room temperature for two days. The MDNR will also take the bird carcass (less the tasty breast meat).

Hunters are asked to seal the bird in a bag provided in the kit and then freeze it until the strip is dried. The two should be combined into the bag and information reported on a data sheet and complete list of instructions are also included with the kit.

The good news is that hunters are eager to participate as cooperators. 500 test kits have already been distributed to help the MDNR obtain the 400 sample goal. Testing of samples will not begin until the grouse season has ended. Final results may not be available for several months following the end of the season. Hunters interested in participating in the 2019 season may want to submit their names now to be on the list of cooperators.

The MDNR is also interested in testing any sick or freshly dead ruffed grouse that are observed. If you encounter sick or dead grouse, hunters and the general public are asked to contact Julie Melotti at (517) 336-5042 or Melottij@michigan.gov or Tom Cooley at (517)336-5034 or Cooleyt2@michigan.gov for further instruction.

The cost for disease prevention and management of wildlife in Michigan is a growing. CWD surveillance and monitoring is consuming nearly one quarter of the MDNR wildlife budget with no end in sight. Additional programs such as the grouse WNV testing are an added expense and the best way to curb excessive costs is again being asked of the public, especially hunters, to stay involved.

Future budgets are sure to be effected and could be problematic to the aggressive habitat projects taking place today.

Anyone can learn more regarding WNV via the internet. You can also call your local MDNR office for further information.

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Tim Kobasic is the outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Tails & Trails Outdoor Radio, aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications cable and the Internet on Saturday mornings.

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