ALden Township, Minnesota – In the woods northwest of Two Harbors, in a forest of aspen and alder, Billy Petersen leaned over to inspect a small patch of turbulent dirt.
“Another dust bowl. And this has turd in it! ‘ exclaimed Petersen. ‘And look, there’s another protest turd…they’re everywhere here!’
Those little green bits of excrement were of course a good sign for hunters looking for their creators. But it’s particularly interesting to Petersen, whose day job is a wildlife biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Petersen, 35, is excited about the feathers she finds, the niches in the dirt where covered grouses take dust baths, the droppings left by woodland birds, called wood wash, and all sorts of other plants and animals in the woods. (She even found moose droppings on this walk!)
Suddenly, Llewellin’s 4-year-old setter, Hatchet, hit a solid point, and the hunter quickly focused on the game at hand.
Easy boy, said Petersen softly.
Only then a grouse jumped from a low branch in a balsam tree. She was there and gone in just a few seconds. Petersen didn’t get a chance to get fired.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” she said.
do not worry. She was one of 10 grouse that Hatchett would find, direct, and wash over a two-hour period on this tax-forgotten forest land owned by the state of Minnesota and administered by St. Louis County.
Petersen noted that given that stocky grouse spends most of their short lives within a half-mile range, this was an ideal place for grouse to call home. There were plenty of little aspen for food all year round, birch trees for winter food, clover and strawberry on the trail, and spruce and balsam hanging low to keep warm and hide from winter predators.
It’s a mosaic of forest sizes, ages, and species–not a sea of the same trees–some of which have been felled in the past five to 10 years, but also patches of old trees important to grouse habitats.
Now that the leaves have fallen from the aspen, alder, and birch in the forest, it is easy to see the birds flocking in. The days are cooler now. Bugs are about to disappear. And the woodcock should migrate soon for an extra bonus in the woods.
This is the time of year grouse teachers dream about the other 11 months.
Hooray for the Hatchet
Petersen moves quickly through the woods to keep up with the Hatchet, starting on an old logging path and then going wherever the dog gets hit by birds, sometimes to an almost impenetrable brush. Hatchet wears a GPS transmitter collar that allows Petersen (with the receiver hanging around her neck) to find it in even the thickest cap.
She communicates in a quiet voice and using hand signals, or a quiet mouth whistle, to get the hatchet back on heels at any time.
This dog is a speed demon on four legs, crisscrossing in front of Petersen, until he finds the scent. Then it slows down and eventually stops at the point. Sometimes he sets himself up, a trait that has bred in Llewellin settlers for centuries, and waits for Petersen to catch up.
It’s 52 feet there,” Petersen said, pointing to a tangle of trees.
Good thing for the GPS because neither of us could see the mostly white dog because the cover was too thick. In fact, when we got there, Hatchett was just fine. This time, the bird lunged too far from the shot.
Then he would explore the trail and back up the trail and out, following Hetchet again.
“Llewellins are bred to work like this, to work relatively close and then basically keep the old scent until the hunter gets close, then move up,” Petersen said. “The goal, if successful, is to get to the bird at the same time, in the ideal scenario.”
The next time Hatchett closed a point he was on the right track. Petersen advanced, shot at the ready, and at once grouse streamed, through an opening in the trees. There will be no excuses here to miss. The first .28-caliber side-to-side shot missed the mark, but Petersen’s second shot connected, and Hatchett quickly returned with a small protest in his mouth.
Everyone was happy.
Later, Hatchett and hunters would stumble upon more grouse on or near the tail, and the curious biologist always wanted to know why they were there. Later I opened the dead bird’s crop and found it stuffed with the leaves of wild strawberry bushes growing in the open sunlight on the road.
“That’s why the protest exists,” Petersen noted.
Back on the tailgate of the truck, Petersen carefully picked up a rump feather from a grouse and determined it was a female (one spot instead of two on each rump feather). The small size and patchy plumage meant that it was a little bird, which hatched this summer – perhaps one of the lucky ones considering how cold and wet the spring can be.
Petersen is the assistant director of wildlife in the Office of the Two Harbors Wildlife Department at DNR. She spends much of her time working with state, county and federal forests to design timber sales that will benefit wildlife as well as logging and the lumber industry.
Petersen also conducts wildlife surveys (one of her favorites is the spring grouse survey which includes, you guessed it, counting crows) to keep track of vandals, birds, and even small mammals like mice.
Her career has field often, and this allows her to find where the best grouse and woodland grouse grows across northeastern Minnesota. She keeps the best covers and comes back with a Hatchet, Llewellin, Riffle (son of Hatchet), or the little Mogul Munsterlander, in the fall.
“I like this a lot and will bring them back without a gun after the season is over,” Petersen noted. From May to July, hounds are not allowed in the woods as the creatures raise their young, “so we do a lot of swimming after that.”
Petersen grew up in the Twin Cities but graduated from high school in the Brainerd area. She attended college at Bemidji State University, where she was really involved in fishing with her future husband, AJ Petersen. The couple got their first hunting dog in 2012, a golden retriever, and shot their first grouse while on a bird hunting trip near Long Prairie, Minnesota.
“We are a huge stray people now,” said Billy, a member of the Ruffed Grouse Society.
The couple, who met while working in high school at a ski hill in Nissoy, Minnesota, grew up to be fishermen when they dated.
“Neither of us fished much growing up. Sometimes deer would hunt with our fathers,” Billy said. “We picked them up together, and as his love of fishing grew, so did my love of working dogs and grouse.”
AJ is now the environmental director of Minnesota’s 148th Fighter Wing Base at Duluth.
Now, AJ and Bailey are fishing together across the country. While she enjoys hunting waterfowl and hunting other game birds—in recent seasons, the Petersen family has hunted sharp-tailed, blue-eyed grouse and sage in the western states and woodland and grouse in Michigan—Petersen said she enjoys living in one of the best crowded places. protest areas in the country.
Dogs and birds have become her passion in life. They hunt upwards of 50 days each fall.
“It’s the dogs. I can’t get enough of working with these dogs,” she said, offering Hatchett a squirt from a water bottle on a break from our warm afternoon hunt. One every afternoon.”
One of her first wildlife jobs outside of college was surveying the woodland of central Minnesota, and Petersen became fascinated with the small migratory gamebird often considered a secondary quarry while hunting grouse. She combines her love of woodcocks, sometimes called woodcockles, with her love of dog training—using her puppies to find clutches of newly hatched Woodcock chicks in the spring so the birds can be associated with population control.
It takes meticulous and intricate work with well-trained and well-behaved dogs that must pass rigorous testing before they are allowed to participate. And that’s exactly why Petersen likes to do it.
“It allows me to keep working with my dogs all year long, and I love it,” she said. “Plus we help, and we give back.”