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Inside the Outdoors: Minnesota's grouse guru, Gordon Gullion, back in the spotlight

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The records and wisdoms of history can be found in all sorts of places; from fragile scrolls stored in clay pots in a Middle Eastern cave, to inscriptions on a mummy case in a long-forgotten tomb or something as modern as tape recorded archives of a presidency. The social fabric, politics and current events of a time are among the things that come to light in such discoveries.

Science, too, can be rediscovered. One particular instance should be of more than passing interest to Minnesota hunters. While recently surfing the internet for outdoors-related news, I came upon a Duluth News-Tribune story that described a research project now being conducted by students at Brainerd's Central Lakes College, led by one of its instructors.

The research does not involve anything as complex as translating hieroglyphics, or piecing together snippets of an extinct language. But it does involve scanning and interpreting sometimes-cryptic information on nearly 70,000 note cards. These cards contain information on the physiology and habits — indeed, the life and death — of Minnesota's ruffed grouse. These information-filled cards are mostly the work records of one man, Gordon Gullion, who devoted more than 30 years to unraveling the mysteries of ruffed grouse from his base at the University of Minnesota's Cloquet Forestry Center. Gullion began this work in 1958 and pursued it until his untimely death at age 68 in 1991 following a battle with cancer.

The information on these cards is being preserved in digital format, something that will make it more mineable for data, and more useful in answering questions and perhaps solving mysteries about this regal game bird. The work sometimes involves detective methods one might expect of Sherlock Holmes, including the use of special solutions to make barely visible notes readable again. The students at CLC are guided by natural resources program instructor Kent Montgomery.

The irony of discovering this story was that I knew both Gullion and Montgomery. I interviewed Gullion several times at the Cloquet Forestry Center, most often when writing about the findings of his grouse research for the now-shuttered outdoor magazine Fins and Feathers. Also, and much like other grouse hunters in those years, I would send grouse tail feathers to Gullion for his research on the age and sex composition of Minnesota's grouse population.

CLC Instructor Montgomery has been an acquaintance dating back to his days as a county extension agent, then director of a regional arboretum, a post that preceded his current natural resources teaching position. Montgomery is an avid outdoors person, one who has established cross-country ski trails on his land, taps maple trees in spring to make and market maple syrup, and is just the kind of educator to try to blend important science with a learning opportunity.

The genesis of this project began in 2015, with grants of financial support from both Minnesota's Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) and the Ruffed Grouse Society. The RGS is a hunter-oriented national conservation group, one that funds research, promotes hunter education and training and advocates for the management of forest habitat for ruffed grouse.

The hoped-for outcome of the CLC project is not only a database of Gullion's findings that other researchers can use, but perhaps also the publication of a book that will share with the general public what Gullion learned. Among the more important of his discoveries is the key role that aspen trees play in the ruffed grouse's survival. Not only are young, dense stands of aspen important to successful nesting and to the survival of very young grouse, but the flower buds produced by adult aspen are generally considered the most nutritious food available to grouse in winter.

It was only hours after reading the aforementioned article on the Gordon Gullion Data Recovery Project — its official title — that my wife and I were headed for the family cabin, despite temperatures still in the single digits. We — our Labrador retriever included — were suffering from cabin fever after so many days of punishing cold. At the cabin we could inspect the progress of some remodeling being done, take a brief walk on the lake and give Bella a few retrieves of the "faux" rubber duck and the canvas retrieving dummies that are always to be found in the garage.

One of our areas of compatibility is that my wife prefers to drive, and I prefer the front passenger seat. On long jaunts I can make use of the time to read. On drives to places like the cabin I can forget about watching the road and concentrate on the forest and fields through which our route winds. As we passed a stretch of low-lying aspen, birch and alder cover — a place where I used to hunt before "No Trespassing" signs appeared — I spotted three bulky shapes in the high branches of a tree. Close as the road lies along the margin of this woodland, it took no special powers of eyesight or birding skills to identify the three shapes as ruffed grouse. There they were, doing what grouse in need of a nutritious winter meal so often do, budding in the crown of an aspen tree.

Just as Gordon Gullion would have expected them to do.