How You Can Improve Grouse Habitat on Your Property
I’ve always loved the idea of leaving a legacy. Not for fame or glory, by any means, but for something simpler. Being a biologist and a hunter, I fell in love with the idea of bringing my in-law’s property to its maximum wildlife potential. Over the years, we’ve cleared some wildlife openings, built brush piles, planted trails and food plots, and pruned dozens of apple trees. But I wanted to take it further by shaping it into a carefully planned grouse paradise, with the hope that my kids would someday enjoy it.
I started thinking about it all a few years ago. I attended a seminar about improving wildlife habitat for private landowners. At the seminar, I got to meet several key players from different nonprofits and agencies, principally including RGS and the Minnesota DNR. After a few follow-up discussions and hours of staring at aerial maps, I finally committed to it. If you’ve been thinking about doing something similar on your own property, here are a few tips on how to plan a planting project for grouse, particularly through the lens of a cost share program. Many people don’t realize there are programs out there that can help you achieve your property goals. Hopefully you’ll find some inspiration to do something similar.
Planning and Decisions
Right off the bat, I knew I wanted to plant something that was lacking on our land: fruiting shrubs. The property is an old farmstead that has (over several decades) reverted to old fields dotted with wild apple trees, and leggy alder thickets adjacent to mature mixed forests and beaver ponds. We definitely see a fair amount of grouse each year. I’ve tried improving it before by clearing a few small patches of alder to create thick nesting and brood cover during the summer (where I also planned to plant shrubs). But one would be hard-pressed to find the berry/small fruit component. As such, it needed a boost for the sake of forest diversity.
The Minnesota State Forest Nursery offered a perfect package for us, which included 100 seedlings each of highbush cranberry, juneberry, chokecherry, red-osier dogwood, and wild plum. In addition, I had been growing apple and hawthorn seedlings, as well as a number of different oaks (e.g., red, white, and bur) as a propagation experiment (remember, I’m a biologist). Although the apples and oaks would take much longer to grow than the shrubs and would likely benefit deer and turkeys more than grouse, that’s still a win in my book.
I envisioned planting the shrubs in clusters along habitat edges, trails, and in interior openings. Essentially, I wanted them to be as accessible and attractive as possible for grouse. I started by outlining rough planting areas for our property on Google Earth™. I also decided I would keep the wild plum, chokecherries, and oaks in upland areas; the juneberry, highbush cranberry, and apples in mesic (medium-moisture) areas; and the red-osier dogwood in the wettest spots, according to their soil preferences. Once I had a firm idea of what I wanted to do, it was time to make a call.
Cost Share Process
I initially reached out to the Minnesota DNR Cooperative Forest Management (CFM) forester in charge of cost share programs for our area last November. He explained that the cost share program would essentially provide funds to offset the cost of buying the shrubs and fencing (to protect the plants). When private landowners improve the habitats on their properties, it benefits wildlife that use adjacent lands (private or public) as well. Typical projects covered by the program include tree and shrub planting, timber stand improvement, or invasive species removal. There are also other federal and county cost share programs to look into.
After discussing my goals for the property, the forester put together a project plan. This plan outlined which trees/shrubs we would buy, how many of each we would plant, how to protect and maintain them, and had a map with the rough planting locations. After another conversation or two, we had completed the plan and signed the cost share assistance agreement. The project suddenly became real, and I was thrilled!
While the cost share funds covered 100 welded wire cages (based on the size of our project), we felt it was a bad idea to simply let the other 400 shrubs get browsed away. So we bought some mesh tree tubes and other wire fencing to protect a couple hundred more. Luckily, we had plenty of old fence posts lying around to stake our cages down. We also bought some landscape fabric to help reduce the intense competition with the old field heavy hitters (e.g., goldenrod, milkweed, reed canary grass, etc.). While these other items would come out of our pocket, we viewed these purchases as investments that were critical to the success of the project.
Shrub Planting and Protection
One rainy day in mid-May, we called the family members out to install cages. As part of the cost share agreement, the State paid for a significant portion of the 6-foot, welded wire cages that would protect our shrubs from hungry deer and (hopefully) curious black bears. It took more effort than we anticipated to get all 100 wire cages (x25 50-foot rolls) distributed across the property, constructed, and staked, but it would make planting day so much simpler.
Over Memorial Day weekend, we called everyone back out to plant the 500 fruiting shrubs and dozens of other apple and oak trees. We spread out in teams across the property, each carrying bundles of shrubs to plant in designated areas. Because the root systems varied in size and structure, some of the shrubs were easier to plant than others. For example, the highbush cranberry root systems were healthy, fibrous, and took some trimming to even fit into the planting hole, while the wild plum consisted of a single short root.
As designed, we planted everything in clumps or along habitat edges to make them accessible to grouse. Where possible, we planted them adjacent to spruce trees for nearby cover. But we also laid them out this way so a hunter could stalk from clump to clump in the fall, checking the next potential hot spot for a feeding bird. After thoroughly tamping the soil around the plant (one shrub per cage), we staked the landscape fabric and tied the cages shut.
The DNR forester visited the property this June to confirm we had planted everything according to plan, and essentially close the loop on the project. During his site visit, he also shared some tips to improve survival of the plants and recommended getting a full stewardship plan for the property. Within a week, we received our cost share reimbursement. While the planting took work – no doubt – the cost share process was actually that easy!
One often forgotten piece of a project like this is the maintenance involved to keep everything healthy. It takes a while for young seedlings to establish their roots and even then, they don’t grow fast. But it’s amazing how quickly herbaceous plants can take over! By 4th of July, the milkweed, goldenrod, nettle, and grasses were 4 feet high already and required some major removal effort. We pulled or cut any other vegetation growing within the cages or immediately around them, and did the same for the tree tubes. If we didn’t remove it, the other vegetation would eventually starve the shrubs of water, nutrients, and light. What’s the point of going through with a project like this if you’re not going to maintain it?
So far the cages have performed the best, which is no surprise. They have landscape fabric to keep the weed competition low, and the approximately 4-foot-diameter cage gives it enough room to grow well. Whereas, the tree tubes (even with the mesh sides) seem to be cramped inside and are growing much slower. While expensive to fund on your own and kind of an eyesore when dotted around the landscape, the welded wire cages seem to be the best way to grow shrubs reliably until they can establish themselves beyond browse pressure.
They say the best time to plant a tree is yesterday. Most people dismiss planting trees and even shrubs because they assume they will never benefit from it. But even so, someone will. Whether it’s your children and grandchildren or someone who simply buys the property from you. One day, they will appreciate the fact that someone put the effort in to improve the forest and wildlife habitat. At least that’s what I kept telling myself while hauling roll after roll of fencing through the alder thickets! But if you’re curious about doing something like this, reach out to a RGS/AWS biologist or forester near you and see what options they have. You’d be surprised how easy the process is. And if you’re lucky, you could someday have your own little “grouse orchard” to hunt!