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Reclaiming the future for ruffed grouse

Second-year student Cameron Fleischer combs through a stack of Gullion notecards, entering their data into a specialized MySQL database created to record and archive this information. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch1 / 2
One of 69,000 notecards compiled by Gordon Gullion and his associates. A treasure trove of data on ruffed grouse ecology sits at the college, that CLC students are in the process of digitizing into an electronic archive. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch2 / 2

Students at Central Lakes College are hunkering down for the long haul to reclaim the life's work of Gordon Gullion—a preeminent expert on ruffed grouse whose diligent, innovative and exhaustive studies of the bird mostly existed as 69,000 notecards, until now.

The staggering number of note cards record the observations and data collection by Gullion (who studied grouse with some of the earliest known cases of radio-tracking), his predecessors and his associates, from as early as 1930 until 1990, shortly before Gullion's death in 1991—nearly 60 years of untapped information. The bulk of this data from 1958-90 represents Gullion's own work at the Cloquet Forestry Center, as well as locations scattered around Crow Wing County and near Mille Lacs Lake.

The largest notecards are the size of a greeting card, while most are as tiny as a typical business card. They contain short, handwritten notes, cut with distinct slots and grooves, dyed with different colors, so they can be efficiently picked out from an archive depending on what type of data is requested—much like a manual, proto-computing system predating modern day personal computers. Through this method, researches categorized information by location, date, the bird's band number, its color phase or sex, its behavior patterns, and any illustrations or photographs that may also be included.

It's one of the largest and most valuable records of its kind, to say nothing of its rare undocumented status, said Kent Montgomery, a natural resources instructor at CLC and head of the reclamation project. It sat for a half-century in the basement of a log cabin at the Cloquet Forestry Center; thousands of notecards locked away in filing cabinets, virtually untouched, until they were lent to CLC about two years ago.

Though the cards were in pristine condition when moved to CLC, Montgomery said some of the writing—particularly those in pencil graphite—is fading, requiring the use of contrasting solutions to be deciphered.

This deterioration added a sense of urgency to the project, which includes Montgomery and the cumulative efforts of 15 students working on digitizing the information, with a tentative completion date sometime in 2021.

"The fear was we were going to lose that information before we really wrung it out and learned everything we could from it. This kind of data set—there are only one or two in the United States that are that lengthy on a single species," Montgomery said, referencing stacks upon stacks of yellowed notecards dating as far back as the Hoover administration. "This was a project of many firsts and it really set the understanding of how to manage grouse in North America."

Translating this data from pen and paper to programs and pixels is no easy task, as Cameron Fleischer—a second-year natural resource sciences student and one of four student-researchers currently working on the project—can attest.

Fleischer said deciphering the cards comes down to who wrote the card and what writing utensil was used, whether it's ink or graphite. He cited a number of cards on which Gullion used a blue pen that spattered and bled ink as a particularly difficult challenge. Beyond that, it's a matter of familiarity, as the notes are scrawled in tightly compacted, short-hand observations often denoted with abbreviations, acronyms or even single letters (such as SW for "snow," although sometimes SW represents "southwest," Fleischer added).

This data is then entered into a specially constructed MySQL database—a simple interface that functions like filling out a physical card, instead of columns or spreadsheets. When this is completed, Montgomery said, the final phase will be to scan each card and make a PDF of each one for future reference if there are discrepancies.

The project is a third of the way to its goal—23,100 of the 69,000 cards are completed—at this point, Fleischer said, the result of a time-consuming, even "mind-numbing" process in which four to eight hours are needed to complete 100 cards, depending on the type of notecard being analyzed.

Despite the repetitive, mundane nature of the reclamation process, Fleischer—who's enjoyed hunting grouse in the past—said Gullion's detailed observations serve to illustrate the lives of grouse, birds with personalities of their own.

"You get the feeling you can play it as a movie in your head, on how the birds are acting or what happens to the birds," he said, seated next to his workstation with a pile of waiting cards at hand. "We've had times where we've had 20 or 30 cards in a row on just one bird so you kind of see it from the first time it was captured, until its fate."

The cumulative results of this data, processed with modern geographic technology, may shed light on the future of the ruffed grouse and Minnesota's ecology going forward, Montgomery said. As intimidating as 69,000 notecards may sound, there are still other undocumented records—many of which deal with temperature, weather and precipitation levels—Gullion and others compiled at the center in Cloquet.

With scientists placing growing emphasis on tracking climate change and its effects on local species, Gullion's ruffed grouse data may stand as only the first step in a much larger reclamation process.

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