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Hunting for the high ground in ruffed-grouse season opener, with a trip across the Wyoming state line

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High aspen across the Wyoming line -- ruffed grouse terrain

A threat to single-handedly wipe out the ruffed grouse population in the Black Hills.

That’s what former South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department Secretary John Cooper called me a few years back.

He was kidding, of course. But I had just done something that’s pretty unusual these days, and it was pretty impressive to Cooper. I killed a daily limit of three ruffed grouse, in one day.

In the Black Hills. In South Dakota.

It’s not easy, three ruffed grouse in one day. I can swear to that, because I’ve only done it, well, let’s  count, uh, there was once, and then there was, well, OK, once. I’m more likely to kill three ruffed grouse in a season than three in a day. And those seasons often begin, as this one did last week, with a trip across the Wyoming state line.

Grouse hunting opens on Sept. 1 in Wyoming, a day when many hunters in South Dakota open fire and their shotgun seasons on mourning doves. I typically choose ruffed grouse in Wyoming over mourning doves in South Dakota for my opener. But these days I have to admit that the unsettling explosion of non-native Eurasian collared dove is increasing my desire to shoot at least a few of the infernal invaders — even if simply out of spite.

Clumsy in the air and drunken-frat-boy obnoxious in groups, collared doves are larger and more aggressive than the shy, crooning, nimble-winged native mourning doves that I love. And to make matters worse, collared doves can’t even sing, yet they can’t seem to stop trying.

Really, what they do is gargle. Or grunt and sputter. Whatever that fingernail-on-blackboard sound is, it’s nothing like the soulful song of the mourning dove

And beyond all that, collared doves are just bad for mourning doves, I believe based on common sense and anecdotal observations of the brushy right-of-way above our backyard, where the native doves have ceased to nest and hang out at all since the obnoxious Eurasians showed up.

So when it comes to redeeming qualities, collared doves are, well, best redeemed with a shotgun. And are probably pretty good on the grill, too.

All in good time for me, which will be bad times for any collared dove I encounter while armed with my lightweight SKB 20 gauge.

But for now, let’s talk about the good times of ruffed-grouse hunting, which have already begun across the state line for me and for my olfactorily gifted springer spaniel, Rosie. The early opener on Friday once again gave us a head start on the South Dakota grouse season, which opens on Sept. 16.

I won’t be available for that this year. Instead, I’ll be in Sioux Falls at a memorial gathering for former Argus Leader sportswriter and editor, John Egan, who died in July down in Sun City, Ariz, at 86. Few things keep me from my favorite season openers, but celebrating the life of a good friend and great mentor is surely among them.

John didn’t hunt. But he read everything I wrote about hunting for the Argus, and remembered much of it. If he were here today, he likely say something like: “Ruffed grouse? You mean those birds you find way up in the aspen, don’t you Woost?”

Yes you do, my friend, yes you do.

And to be clear on that point, almost all of the grouse shot during the South Dakota grouse season will not be up in the aspen, and they will not be ruffed grouse. They will be sharp-tailed grouse, primarily, with a smaller number of prairie chickens. These birds are wonderful prairie natives. I admire them and care about their future. And I have passionately observed, exalted and hunted them for most of my life.

But I don’t shoot what I don’t eat. And prairie grouse are birds with dark meat magnified. They have gamey, liver-like flavor that, for me, has lost the allure it held in my younger years.

I still shoot one or two prairie grouse a year, mainly because my mother-in-law, Shirley, back in Highmore admires their flavor, and also the connection they bring with her growing-up years on the Pekarek family farm in the hills down around Peno Dam.

Shooting a prairie grouse or two also gives some satisfaction to Rosie. She flushes dozens of them during a typical hunting season, when we are actually after pheasants. She always seems a bit puzzled that I don’t shoot when they flush, and enjoys retrieving one when I do.

She doesn’t, however, seem interested at all in actually consuming them, as she does with pheasant and with ruffed grouse. Ruffed grouse, especially, seem to be a dinner bell rung loud and long for Rosie, even though she resists the impulse to act on it, understanding full well that there would be consequences if she did.

But who can blame her? Ruffed grouse are the most delicate, delightfully flavored of birds. Better than pheasant, even. They’re the white meat of wild poultry, like quail only bigger and sweetly flavored with just the perfect hint of aspen groves. Which makes sense, since that’s where you find them.

But finding them means a real hunt in the Black Hills that starts with hunting for aspen. There just isn’t that much of it around anymore, because of the relentlessly growing, expanding ponderosa pine forest.

Ponderosa pine are lovely trees, in reasonable numbers. But they are extremely well suited for the climate, soil types and growing conditions of the Black Hills, and often grow beyond reason and suitability. Then they can do a reasonable imitation of a weed.

Ponderosa pine have been assisted in their takeover of the Black Hills by generations of wildfire control and forest-management policies that have benefited the commercially valuable pines while hurting aspen and other deciduous trees and shrubs that don’t advance commerce but benefit overall forest plant diversity and the wildlife populations it serves.

Don’t get me wrong, old-growth pine forest can be a beautiful thing. And it can benefit certain wildlife species, too, as well as elevating the human spirit in life-affirming ways.

But have you ever stopped to look at the ground in a dense pine forest? There’s not much going on. Pine needles, pretty much, and not much else.

An aspen environment is something else entirely, populated with ferns and berries and shrubs and seeds and buds, and attracting the kind of wildlife diversity that is missing in forests crowded with one encroaching pine after the other.

As aspen go in the Black Hills, so go ruffed grouse. And they’ve gone down over the last 50 years in number and distribution.  Help is likely on the way, because of the pine-clearing properties of large wildfires over the last 20 or 30 years, revised forest-management plans and the mountain pine beetle, which has killed at least some pines — and sometimes most of them — on almost 500,000 acres of the 1.2-million acre Black Hills National Forest.

The bug has been bad for the view and for the timber industry, tough on hikers because of all the fallen trees and not beneficial to tourism. It has also been threatening to firefighters, who will not and should not go into certain areas where the fuel load is explosive and escape routes are limited by cluttered, steep terrain.

The bad bug news will bring good news for ruffed grouse and other wildlife in the coming years. I hope to live long enough to see some of that. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of pine forest between aspen groves, and a lot of miles between ruffed grouse populations. So killing one requires a fair bit of looking, a good deal walking (which means thrashing around in the aspen with the dog) and a reasonable bit of luck.

That was part of the allure to me when I moved to Rapid City in 2002, and began hunting ruffies a couple of years later in a fairly casual way, that soon got serious.

As a native of the flatlands of central South Dakota with pheasant-hunting on the brain, I was a pretty dumb ruffed-grouse hunter at first. I was also in one of those painful periods between hunting dogs, where the idea of wandering around with a shotgun and a vague plan to kill a bird hardly makes sense.

Eventually, though, I started to figure out where some of the limited populations of ruffed grouse might be in the Black Hills. Then I got Rosie. She can’t read a map or even say “aspen,” but she knows more about finding ruffed grouse than I’ll ever know. Of course, she has a big advantage: Her nose is a lot smarter than mine.

So I follow Rosie, who follows her nose, which follows the bird scent, eventually to the birds. Or, more often with ruffed grouse, to the bird. Because it’s rare to find more than one in one spot.

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On Friday, we were packing a 20 gauge over-under and $94.50 worth of paper representing a Wyoming nonresident license, conservation stamp and private-land-access donation when we began the 2017 season. We were a mile or so into Wyoming and a short drive away from the Cement Ridge Fire Lookout. There, I was pretty sure, Barb Peterson was on duty, as usual, up in the classic old stone-and-wood lookout tower built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1941.

We’ll come back in moment to the lookout tower, to Barb, to her big, old, white Ford four-wheeled-drive pickup and her important role in Black Hills wildfire response. But first, back to the hunt.

It’s sharply up-and-down terrain there, And as I let Rosie out of  the portable kennel in the pickup box we were both feeling high with anticipation and the altitude, which was somewhere around 6,000 feet. That’s a mole hill to a real mountain guy, of course, but it’s palpable elevation to a flatlander like me.

My early climbing heights, after all, were largely limited to Medicine Butte, the gracefully eroded promontory rising a few hundred feet above the surrounding Lyman County grasslands north of Reliance. The butte is a spiritually significant place to the Lower Brule Sioux, and to those sharing their belief in the medicinal power of the land.

But hiking up the Medicine Butte is not exactly like hunting up Cement Ridge or any of the surrounding mountain slopes. Which brings us to Rule No. 1 in my still-unpublished Flatlander’s Guide to Black Hills Ruffed Grouse Hunting: Do not spend altitude carelessly, because eventually you will have to pay to get it back.

Rule No. 2 matters as well: Always finish downhill on the last hunt of the day, especially on the first hunt of the season, especially when you’re 65 years old, and getting older by the minute.

I followed Rule No. 1 pretty well during our first trek of the opening-day hunt on a steep-but-manageable slope covered by a 200-yard-wide aspen patch that stretched continuously for more than half a mile.

It’s a simple formula: Move along at a reasonable pace. Let the dog work. Stop and study the terrain ahead and snap iPhone photos of flowers and ferns and lichens. Let the dog work. Breathe deep the glory of the day. Let the dog work. Listen for ruffed grouse squeaks and putts and flutters. Let the dog work.

And a particular note to those over 60: Take care on the steep angle of the slope with each step in the tangle of fallen tree trunks and branches and stumps. Take extra care when they’re slick with dew, as they were Friday morning. Let the dog work.

I took unusual care of my footwork on Friday, and only fell on my face in the aspen once. That’s pretty good for me, because I have a roving eye that doesn’t rove often enough down to my feet while I’m appreciating landscapes that are inspiring but also difficult to traverse.

So I typically fall a lot, which I and especially my like-aged doctor, Allen Nord, consider to be increasingly unwise with years. Dr. Nord, by the way, is a Sioux Falls native whose dad, Evans, was for many years the station manager at KELO TV. Allen worked the cameras for the Captain 11 Show back in the day. These days along with his general practice, he is a leader in the battle against tobacco use.

And he also works on helping me stay upright in my woodlands wanderings, a formula that includes green tea, fruits and vegetables, a little Lisinopril and Atorvastatin and more attention on my part to slowing down and watching the ground ahead when out in the woods.

The angle of my one fall Friday put most of the impact on the more badly damaged of the two elbows I broke a few years back when I did a face-first into the sidewalk in downtown Rapid City while covering the Labor Day Parade for the Journal. Ironically enough, I was jogging to catch up with a float in the parade when I caught both of my feet in a plastic newspaper-bundle loop apparently left on the sidewalk by a Journal delivery person that morning.

So these days, whenever I fall hard on the right elbow and don’t hear a crack I celebrate, out loud.

“Hey,” I said to the elbow Friday morning. “You held up again!”

By then we had reached the bottom of the slope. And after sending Rosie over into a nearby meadow for a dip in a flowing spring, we headed back up toward the pickup, working 75 yards or so below our route on the hunt down.

We were less than 100 yards from the pickup when Rosie’s stub tail went from metronome regular to machine-gun rapid. She went snuffling frantically in a snake-dance pattern through the heavy stuff for a minute or two before flushing a ruffed grouse.

An hour into our season, and we had a bird in the bag.

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Good girl, Rosie! And see that, John Cooper? I’m still working on ruffed-grouse extermination!

I kid, of course, but I also worry about the bird. And it might seem contradictory that I love ruffed grouse, understand how and why their numbers have diminished in the Black Hills and still, well, go out every year and kill some.

But a good year for me really is three or four ruffed grouse in the bag, all season, although it’s possible I could kill a few more now that I’ve settled into semi-retirement and have a bit more shotgun time.

I’ll switch over to my other bird-brained love next month, however, when pheasant season opens. And there is fall fishing to worry about as well. So my chances of single-handedly gunning the ruffed grouse in the Black Hills to extinction are slight. And while other people shoot ruffed grouse around here, too, there aren’t all that many of them. It’s just too much work for the return, for most people.

So there aren’t very many ruffies shot each year in the Black Hills.

Even so, when I kill a ruffed grouse in a particular locale, I avoid shooting another one there during the same season. To resort to biological terminology, that’s because I really don’t know if the few birds I take are compensatory mortality or additive mortality.

The notion of compensatory mortality is comforting to a hunter like me. In ruffed grouse, for example, it would imply that the birds I kill don’t add to their natural mortality, caused by so many natural threats. If my kills are additive morality, the meaning is obvious. I’m imposing losses in addition to what would otherwise occur.

Additive morality isn’t always bad, of course. If you’re trying to reduce a certain wildlife population, as state Game, Fish & Parks Department pros have done with the mountain lion in the Black Hills, you aim for additive mortality.

There’s clearly no benefit and possibly some harm in adding morality to Black Hills ruffed grouse with a shotgun.

As threats to ruffed grouse in the Black Hills go, my SKB 20 gauge is a lot less meaningful than the weather, or wild predators or loss of habitat. But I have no idea whether killing a few birds in a given area has a negative impact on the already limited population in that area.

Ruffed grouse in the Black Hills are caught in sort of a doughnut hole of data. They aren’t threatened with extinction, so they don’t get the money and research they would get if their survival as a species were in doubt. Nor are they commercially valuable like the pheasant, so they don’t get the money and research the consuming public and commercial interests demand.

What they get is hardly any attention at all. So most biologists in South Dakota, who are already busy with higher-priority critters, can’t tell me in any detail what’s going on with ruffed grouse, beyond the fact that they’re limited by habitat.

A fellow named Joe Sandrini over in Wyoming, who works for the Game & Fish Department out of Newcastle, knows a bit more more about ruffies over there, because there are more ruffed grouse across the state of Wyoming and more attention is paid to them. So Sandrini knows more than we know over here. But he’s stretched by time and resources, too, and by demands of more popular species. So he he doesn’t know as much as he’d like to know.

It’s all enough to make me think quite a bit about how and when and why I pull the trigger. Which on Friday was once. And that was plenty good for an opening day.

After that the round of No. 7 steel, I opened fired with the iPhone, in celebration and in gratitude. Judging by its size, the grouse was a first-year bird, so there would be less to share at the supper table. But young bird is tender bird, so I knew it would also be especially delightfully. And Saturday night it was all of that, after Mary sauteed it carefully in a red-wine-and-mushroom sauce and served it on a bed of quinoa.

“Oh, so delicious,” she said. “It’s like the walleye of the air.”

That’s high table praise, and true.

I was already anticipating that meal when I reached the pickup Friday with the bird. But there was still some hunting left before the forecast high near 90 in the Black Hills — slightly cooler up where we were — would encourage us to bring an early end to our season opener, for my personal comfort and for Rosie’s well being.

First I wanted to stop and check in with Barb at the Cement Ridge Lookout, presuming she was there. And on the two-track trail a quarter of a mile away from the summit, I saw the lookout tower and her white Ford pickup silhouetted against the blue sky.

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A few minutes later I was standing below catwalk on the east side of the tower, looking up. Soon she peered over the railing with a smile.

“You must be Barb,” I said, grinning.

She laughed: “And you must be Kevin.”

“I’m glad to see you’re still here,” I said.

She laughed again: “Yeah, they haven’t run me off yet.”

I’m pretty sure they won’t, either. This is Barb’s ninth year of, uh, womanning the Cement Ridge Fire Lookout. She’s a bright, conversational, retired CPA with a little place down on the northeast Wyoming plains within easy driving distance of Cement Ridge. And she’s good at what she does as part of the first line of defense against catastrophic wildfires.

Scattered in towers across the Black Hills of Wyoming and South Dakota, staffers in fire lookouts are scanning the surrounding landscape on a 360-degree pattern throughout the day, looking for smoke.  When they see it and determine it isn’t a prescribed burn or other activity, they turn to measuring equipment to give directions, including township, range and section. Then they make that important call that will send crews racing to the scene.

Last year, Barb made the call on the Crow Peak fire near Spearfish, giving firefighters an early start in attacking the fast-moving blaze. It torched 2,700 acres but never reached a rural home or seriously threatened Spearfish itself.

Barb was instrumental in that. It's one of the reasons I look up to her, along with the fact that it's the only way to see her during an unscheduled visit to the tower: You stand below. She comes out on the catwalk, looks down over the railing and chats.

I did that a couple of times during grouse hunts on previous opening days. Last year, though, I got to go up in the tower, on assignment for Keloland News, just a few months before I retired from that venerable institution.

I had covered the Crow Peak Fire for KELO. And after things settled down, I made a trip to Cement Ridge for a follow-up on Barb and her detection of a “wisp of smoke” that signaled the fire. That meant I got to go up in the tower, hang out for a while and watch Barb work. It was a blast. And the view was amazing.

But the view isn’t bad from the base of the tower, either.  (If you haven’t been there, make it a point to go.) And the conversation was great.  After we chatted about fire conditions and the smoke rolling in from a fire up in Montana, Barb turned to another important subject:

“How’s Rosie?” she asked.

“She’s in the pickup, waiting to head over the ridge out there and down in the aspen,” I said.

“Sounds good,” Barb said. “But be careful. I’d hate to have to call for help and get you hauled up out of there.”

I told her I wasn’t fond of the idea myself, and suggested that if my pickup was still down in the gravel parking area in two hours, she might start thinking about search and rescue.

“But we’ll be back up out of there eating lunch before then,” I said.

Turned out, Rosie and I were back with about 20 minutes to spare. But along the way I had violated both Rule No. 1 and Rule No. 2 in my Flatlander’s Guide to Black Hills Ruffed Grouse Hunting.

First, I went down rather than up leaving the pickup. (In my defense, there was no "up" option, except the fire tower, so. ...)  That meant, that on the last hunt of the day I’d be coming up, rather than down, on the way back to the pickup. Steeply up. Ridiculously so. And I’d be tired.

But I couldn’t help myself. I had spoken to an archery hunter who stopped on his four-wheeler as I was hunting my way toward that first grouse. And he said he’d seen a number of ruffed grouse in the “patches of aspen just over the edge” from Cement Ridge.

I had another plan for a different spot. But I couldn’t resist following up on that tip. (Rarely have such tips worked out for me in the past, which might be another rule for my guide…)

Then I compounded my troubles by spending altitude carelessly, enjoying too much the easy stroll on a two-track trail that wound down, down, down from the summit into hopeful-looking terrain. Hopeful looking, sure.  Also boggy, pock-marked and tangled, with vegetation so thick that pushing through it was constant challenge.

It was also a pretty good way to hurt yourself. And a bit later thrashing through a thicket on the way back up the hill, I did — jamming the back of my right hand against the pointed remnants of a tree branch broken off near the trunk. It was a little gouge, with barely a dime-sized chunk of flesh extracted. But it was a bleeder. And I spent valuable hunting time stanching the flow by applying pressure with a section of my undershirt.

Looking at my shirt, I decided I'd spilled more human blood than bird blood for the day.

We never saw another grouse down there in the hopeful-looking terrain.  And I got to finish the hunt slogging up, up, up a steep hill, as the temperature rose and angle of the slope pushed me toward exhaustion. Rosie was patient as I took short breaks to sit and catch my breath and resume pressure on the wound, which kept the blood flow to a trickle.

Still on one of those breaks, I did ponder what kind of complication a deeper cut could have produced farther down in the thick stuff. It's something to think about some more, and probably a good reason to take some of the medical supplies out of the pickup glove box and put them in my hunting vest for long tromps in unfriendly terrain.

When we finally got back up to the ridge just short of two hours after we left, I gave Rosie a long drink in the shade of the pickup. Then I strolled over to the weathered-wood picnic table 30 or 40 yards away, to sit in the light breeze of the summit and do my own 360-degree review while sucking cold water and munching granola and fresh blueberries.

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A few minutes later, I packed up the gun and the dog and noticed that Barb was out on the catwalk again. She seemed to be cleaning the window.

“See you next time, Barb,” I shouted.

“You have safe hunting,” she shouted back.

I waved OK and slipped into the pickup. Soon we were slow motoring on the two-track trail down from the 6,647 foot Cement Ridge summit with one young ruffed grouse on ice and the overall Black Hills population in no immediate threat of single-handed extinction.

When we reached the gravel road that runs down Rattlesnake Canyon toward Beulah, we turned the other way and, with the temperature rising, headed for the South Dakota line and a cool, reliable brown-trout spot deep in Spearfish Canyon.

No Black Hills ruffed-grouse hunt is complete, after all, without a fly rod and a little time in the water.