I remember spending a night in the Paul Bunyan State Forest some years ago and looking up into the Milky Way.
My dog and I had traveled to that rugged country northeast of Park Rapids in the first week of October to hunt ruffed grouse. After a day of hunting we had made camp next to an old logging road.
It was one of the bonuses that hunting has brought me over the years. I remember telling myself that night that I had never seen so many stars. There were no city lights to obscure the night sky. Later I heard a pack of coyotes “singing” a lullaby for all of us sheltered in the forest. It was a great night outdoors and now it is a great memory.
That logging road was still there last September when my wife and I made a foray into the same area. At first, it did not look too different. The grassy knoll where I had camped begged for a visit so we parked our car there. The day was bright and the leaves were turning. We knew the grouse had the advantage of cover but that was OK. We were there to hunt - which means you take what comes.
What was not OK with us was a side trail off the logging road we had named the “Porcupine Trail” years before. It was where my wife and son had bumped into a big porcupine - the first they had ever seen in the wild. It had been a good grouse trail once upon a time. It had been covered with green clover - a favorite food of ruffies.
What we found ourselves looking at was a well-worn trail of black dirt with rocks protruding here and there. It no longer belonged to the grouse - it belonged to all terrain vehicle (ATV) riders.
Department of Natural Resources data has charted the growth of ATV registrations. In 2005 there were 237,872 in the state. That number climbed to 282,258 five years later. Last year it stood at 309,742.
We have run into more than one group of ATV riders in the past few years on the trails that used to hold grouse. As the ATV sightings have gone up the number of grouse we have run into has gone down. That just makes sense. The grouse have been scared out of their habitat by the noise and activity - not entirely perhaps but enough.
Grouse hunters that still walk the trails might not like it but so what? They are on public land. There are conservation officers out there making sure ATV riders are not breaking any laws. We have run into them checking ATV groups in the Paul Bunyan plenty of times. I recall running into a group one afternoon that had attracted the attention of two officers because they were on a restricted roadway.
Grouse hunters who want to walk the trails have to face the fact that there is only so much money to be made from their sport. Walking is not for everyone. It should not be forgotten that a lot of grouse hunting is done on ATVs. For people handicapped by age, a crippling injury or disease or too many pounds to carry, it is a way to stay out in the field.
All you need to hunt ruffies is a small game license, a shotgun and some low-base lead shells. You open the gate for the ATV crowd and it means extra revenue for everyone. The state profits from registrations. A new ATV or utility terrain vehicle (UTV) costs thousands and if you need a trailer to haul it you will also have to shell out some big bucks. There are also places that rent ATVs.
There are all kinds of ways to profit from nature - it does not have to depend on a night under the stars.
Brian Hansel is a reporter for The Fergus Falls Daily Journal.