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Gladwin Field Trial Area is Rated Among Nation's Best

Februrary 14, 2008

In November 1944, despite World War II and gasoline rationing, 17 dogs and their handlers from New England, the Middle Atlantic States and the Great Lakes region, all winners of sectional and regional competitions, traveled to the Gladwin State Game Refuge in Michigan to compete in the 2nd annual Grand National Grouse Championships.

W. Lee White of Connecticut, the director of the grouse dog organization sponsoring the event, said the layout at the Gladwin Refuge "In my opinion is far superior to anything that I have seen anywhere else in the country."

The Saginaw Field and Stream Club had for many years held its grouse field trials within the refuge and had spent much time and money in laying out and maintaining the field trial courses, and in 1941, the Department of Conservation Game Division, in cooperation with the Michigan Grouse Field Trial Association, carried out additional improvement work to the courses.

"The field trials held in the fall of 1942 were very successful," wrote Max Wakeman, a biologist for the Game Division. "Bird populations were up and many birds were found. The field trial members were very well satisfied."

Those successful trials set the stage for the Grand National Grouse Championships to come to Michigan for the first time, and these and other field trial championships have been held at Gladwin numerous times in the past, and the 2008 Grand National Grouse Championships are set to return here this November.

Since 1977, DNR Wildlife Biologist Dick Shellenbarger has overseen habitat management responsibilities on this eight-square-mile area in the extreme northwest corner of Gladwin County to ensure that it has remained one of the premier field dog trial areas in the nation.

Shellenbarger said field dog trials are an organized meet among not less than four participants whose dogs compete for points based on their performance and hunting skills. Competitions typically are scored by judges on horseback.

"The Gladwin Field Trial Area has a lot of special qualities," he said, "which is why it is so well regarded as one of the most ideal grouse trial areas in the United States."

But, the area was not always so ideal.

Following a period of heavy logging, by the late 1890s only a scattering of small farms dotted the Gladwin County landscape.

Garden variety crops and small livestock pastures were hopeful attempts by these homesteaders to sustain a living on less than ideal soils. Many of these farms eventually failed and the land reverted to the state.

These neglected farm fields converted to brush and eventually to forested cover types. Today, only a few small remnant openings serve as markers to an era long past.

In 1916, the Public Domain Commission "blocked in" many of the existing tax-reverted lands by purchasing adjacent properties and creating a "public grouse field trial area."

Six years later, one year after the Department of Conservation was organized in 1921, wildlife managers considered the 5,000-acre Gladwin Game Refuge to be more valuable for conducting experiments in wildlife management than as a public hunting ground.

Throughout much of the 1920s and 1930s, the area was closed to hunting except for ruffed grouse.

As the sanctioned field trials at Gladwin grew in local popularity, they gained regional and eventually national prominence.

"Wildlife managers in the department in those days believed if the refuge were open to small game hunting it would have decreased the value of the improvements and its use for holding some of the most prestigious field trial championships," said Shellenbarger.

In 1957, the Conservation Commission officially dedicated the area as the Gladwin Field Trial Area.

Wayne Fruchey and Roger Johnson, longtime residents of Gladwin County and active participants in the pointing dog field trials, have assisted the department in course development and maintenance across the Gladwin Field Trial Area for many years.

A minimum of eight one-hour courses, winding through rolling aspen stands, and along streams and lakes, are essential for most sanctioned events.

Over time, as a result of the changing habitat conditions, Gladwin's course routes have been altered to allow event dogs the opportunity to run and be evaluated within the best cover locations.

For Fruchey and Johnson it has been a labor of love and both agree that "field trialing opportunities found within the Gladwin Field Trial Area are second to none."

Today, the Gladwin Field Trial Area is co-managed by the DNR Wildlife and Forest, Mineral and Fire Management divisions.

"The success of the Gladwin Field Trial Area as a nationally recognized dog trial event area is the result of a timber management strategy that emphasizes the importance of shade-intolerant tree species, particularly aspen," said DNR Forest Unit Manager Courtney Borgondy. "Young, dense tree cover is critically important for sustaining grouse populations."

Managers target those timber types preferred by grouse, and consider the age class distribution of the forest. This strategy assures that high-quality grouse habitat is always available.

Because early successional trees, especially aspen, are preferred by grouse, forest management activities are best accomplished by clearcutting, a practice which sometimes surprises people who visit the area.

But managing the Gladwin Field Trial Area is not only about grouse and bird dogs. The area offers scenic forests, several lakes for fishing and swimming, picnic areas, a campground and miles of trails, and abundant wildlife viewing opportunities. Hunting continues to be restricted, except deer may be taken during the November firearm season, and beaver and otter may be trapped from Nov. 15 to March 15.

Given its short distance from Midland, Bay City and Saginaw, it is easy to understand the DNR's challenge to continue to provide for dog field trial events, while considering all other compatible recreational uses.

To address these and other emerging issues, the Wildlife Division currently is developing a strategic master plan that will provide overall management direction for the area.

"For over 90 years, DNR managers have maintained the grouse habitat objectives of this special area," Shellenbarger said. "As one of only a handful of field trial areas in Michigan and the only one that relies on wild, naturally produced birds for those events, the DNR will maintain the special use of this land -- for grouse and dog field trials."

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