Showcasing the Michigan DNR: New Grouse Enhanced Management Systems give hunters a gem of an opportunity

DNR Director Keith Creagh and Gov. Rick
Snyder assisted volunteers in planting more
 than 75 fruit-bearing trees and shrubs to
enhance a new GEMS hunter walking trail in
southern Marquette County Aug. 13. The
GEMS are designed to showcase Michigan’s
outstanding upland bird hunting opportunities.
(DNR photos)
It isn’t every day that you would find Governor Rick Snyder and Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh working shoulder-to-shoulder in the vast state forest lands of the Upper Peninsula, shovels in hand, planting nannyberry shrubs and crabapple trees.

But on a hot, sunny day in mid-August, that’s exactly what two dozen citizen volunteers and a handful of DNR staff witnessed at the end of a two-track trail just south of Gwinn in Marquette County, where, thanks to the collaborative efforts of all parties mentioned above, a diamond in the rough has gradually become a brilliant gem.

The GEMS – or Grouse Enhanced Management Systems – are a new DNR initiative designed to bring attention to Michigan’s outstanding upland bird hunting opportunities through the creation of a series of walk-in access hunting trails intensively managed for improved ruffed grouse and woodcock hunting.

DNR Wildlife Division development of the GEMS hinged largely upon the support of the Ruffed Grouse Society and increased revenue from the state’s new license fee package.

“The Ruffed Grouse Society and the American Woodcock Society are both extremely excited about
the new GEMS initiative,” said Eric Ellis, East Great Lakes regional biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society. “We see this as an opportunity to get our members in the field, working on habitat improvement projects at the GEMS sites, and using hunting destinations as opportunities to promote grouse and woodcock hunting and conservation in Michigan.”

To get the GEMS ready for their debut season, the DNR’s Wildlife Division and Ruffed Grouse Society professional staff and members have partnered to plan and complete the necessary groundwork: clearing trails, improving habitat with strategic plantings to benefit a variety of wildlife, and placing signs, gates and trail information kiosks.

Two dozen volunteers recently gathered at the southern Marquette
County GEMS location to improve habitat by planting more than 75
nannyberry, crabapple and red oak trees. The fruit- and nut-bearing
trees will attract a variety of wildlife, including upland game
birds, deer, bear and songbirds.
The work has also been supported with volunteer hours and financial support from the American Woodcock Society, Ducks Unlimited, National Wild Turkey Federation, Michigan United Conservation Clubs and the U.P. Wildlife Habitat Fund.

Without a doubt, a highlight of all that hard work was the presence of Gov. Snyder and Director Creagh on Wednesday, Aug. 13, at an On-the-Ground habitat improvement event hosted by MUCC at the Marquette County GEMS location.

According to remarks made by Snyder and Creagh that day, they attended the event not only to help with the planting of more than 75 trees and shrubs, but to celebrate and recognize the contributions of hunters and volunteers who figuratively and literally planted the seeds that allowed the GEMS to take root.

The GEMS concept first occurred to Terry Minzey, the DNR’s Upper Peninsula regional wildlife supervisor, while he was watching a television show that featured a “trail” of golf courses the public was invited to visit and play.

He recalls thinking: “Why couldn’t we do something like this for upland bird hunting?”

Now, less than two years later, the GEMS have morphed from concept to reality. To date, the DNR has established seven GEMS locations (in Cheboygan, Chippewa, Dickinson, Gladwin, Gogebic, Mackinac and Marquette counties), and is committed to developing at least six more statewide by September 2015.

GEMS are developed on sites with historically good grouse and woodcock habitat that have been further enhanced with plantings of clover and fruit-bearing trees and shrubs. An additional key component of habitat improvement for the GEMS is the intensive cutting of aspen on an accelerated 40-year cycle, which will increase the presence of young aspen – the preferred habitat of ruffed grouse and woodcock.

The GEMS are walk-in access trails designed to provide safe
and easily accessible hunting opportunities for beginners, youth,
and hunters with limited mobility. The hunting trails will also be
attractive destinations for hiker, cross-country skiers and bird watchers.
“Cutting has already taken place on all seven of our GEMS areas,” said Al Stewart, the DNR’s upland game bird specialist. “The idea is to move these areas from being good habitat for grouse, woodcock and other young forest wildlife to being excellent habitat for those species.”

Stewart also pointed out that promoting early successional forests through intensive cutting provides an opportunity to highlight the value of young forests to stakeholders who might not be aware of the vital role strategic cutting plays in habitat management.

“GEMS management will provide a unique opportunity to showcase the relationship between habitat improvement and the timber industry,” Stewart said. “We’re not only promoting the value of young forests to the mainstream business culture, we’re providing habitat that will benefit a whole suite of species.”

In addition to improving wildlife habitat, the GEMS hold two other specific purposes: Creating safe and easily accessible hunting opportunities for new hunters or those with limited mobility, and supporting the vital tourism economy of the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula.

The walk-in access trails, which feature minimal terrain changes, are gated and marked with signs and information kiosks at trailheads. Detailed maps of the GEMS are also available online.

The GEMS are walk-in access trails designed to provide safe and
easily accessible hunting opportunities for beginners, youth, and
hunters with limited mobility. The hunting trails will also be attractive
destinations for hiker, cross-country skiers and bird watchers.
“We’re looking at creating a place for a guy who’s 70 years old and still wants to grouse hunt, but can’t bust the brush anymore,” Minzey said. “Or maybe a hunter mentoring a young kid, or a wounded veteran who can’t get through the thick stuff; they can let the dogs go and stay on the trail until the dogs find a bird.

“These trails will also certainly be used by hunters targeting other species attracted to this habitat – deer, rabbits, turkey, and so on – not to mention the opportunities the GEMS will present for cross-country skiers, snowshoeing, birding, hiking and other types of outdoor recreation.”

With an eye on the many out-of-state hunters who come to the U.P. and northern Lower Peninsula to chase grouse and woodcock, Stewart and Minzey both envision the GEMS as a series of destinations that visiting hunters can follow across the state, from one end of grouse territory to the other.

Partner groups and sponsors in communities across northern Michigan also see the potential for connecting hunters with local businesses and boosting seasonal economies.

Organizations including the City of Marquette, Plum Creek Timber Company, Huron-Manistee National Forest and the Hiawatha National Forest have already joined with the DNR and Ruffed Grouse Society in support of the GEMS – with one of the current GEMS found on national forest land and future locations planned on private timber company land.

DNR Director Keith Creagh and Gov. Rick Snyder put up a sign
marking a new GEMS (Grouse Enhanced Management System)
hunter walking trail in southern Marquette County at a recent
habitat improvement event Wednesday, Aug. 13.
Business owners near the GEMS are also signing up to promote the program by offering discounts or other incentives to hunters who visit a GEMS site, take a photo of themselves with a GEMS sign, and then patronize the local sponsor establishment.

“The GEMS really are a win-win-win for habitat, hunters and the economy,” Stewart said. “We see the GEMS as opportunities to really work with chambers of commerce or other community leaders to promote place-based economies, support the local timber industry, and help everyone recognize the economic value of hunting.”

For more information about the GEMS and how to become a sponsor or partner, visit