Originally published Sept. 9By John Lauritsen

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Hunting season is just around the corner, but in parts of Minnesota, one bird will be off-limits.

The sharp-tailed grouse population in east-central Minnesota has declined so drastically that the season has been called off in that zone, and it’s a concern for other birds in the area.

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At Capra’s Sporting Goods in Blaine, ducks, geese, pheasants and other birds are on their minds of hunters. It’s the time of year when ammunition sales spike.

“So last week we had a lot of ammo. Steel shot. Bird shot. Stuff like that,” said Jerry Riege, of Capra’s Sporting Goods.

But sharp-tailed grouse will be protected this year- at least in one part of the state.

Sharp-tailed grouse need wide open mating grounds called “leks.” A decade ago there were 70 leks in the east central zone. In 2019, they only counted 30, and that number continues to decline.

“This year we counted just 18. So that’s a pretty big drop over a 10-year period,” said Charlotte Roy, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ project leader in the region.

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Roy says there are a number of reasons for the habitat loss. Trying to manage large pockets of land across different properties is tricky. And with fewer wildfires in the region, forests have crept into grouse land.

“In the era of wildfire suppression and land-use conversion, a lot of these habitats are disappearing,” said Roy.

The DNR decided to call off the sharp-tail hunting season in the east-central region after this year’s hunting regulations handbook went to print. So they’re hoping hunters hear the news ahead of time. Roy isn’t sure when they’ll be able to hunt sharp-tailed grouse again and she’s concerned that what’s happening to these birds could happen to others as well.

“We have to do it with partners and citizens who are interested in maintaining these habitats for these birds. So I’m not sure we are going to succeed in bringing these birds back but we sure do want to try,” she said.

The sharp-tailed grouse season would normally open in October.

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The DNR says grouse numbers are holding steady in the northwest zone and that season begins Sept. 18.

John Lauritsen