Area habitat dwindling for ruffled grouse
You’re not going to find many ruffed grouse at the local strip mall.
Some species of wildlife — white-tailed deer, Canada geese, squirrels, raccoons, even black bears — can do well on suburban landscapes.
Grouse don’t fit into that category.
They’re a “habitat specialist” that requires a particular mosaic of forest types to thrive, said Lisa Williams, grouse biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. They need mature woods for their acorns, stands of pole timber to nest with their back to a tree and conifers for winter cover.
But more than anything, grouse need early successional habitat or brushy forests up to about 12 or 15 years old, she said.
“I always say a good grouse forest lasts about as long as a good grouse dog,” Williams said. “You get about 12 years of real good habitat after a timber cut.”
The problem is that kind of woods has declined by about 30 percent statewide since the mid-1980s, Williams said. Public and private forests aren’t being cut as often or on as big a scale, she added.
That’s meant tough times for grouse and grouse hunters. Hunters shot almost 273,000 birds across Pennsylvania in 1993, according to commission statistics, and nearly 109,000 as recently as 2008.
Last year’s harvest was closer to 40,000.
The good news is there’s a chance better days might be ahead, thanks in part to America’s run on guns and ammunition.
The commission does about 6,000 acres of commercial timber cuts on state game lands each year, said Ben Jones, chief of the habitat planning and development division for the agency.
Those are ones where the agency identifies an area where it wants to create habitat and loggers interested in the lumber pay to get at it.
Since 2010, the commission has paid loggers to cut another 10,000 acres that weren’t commercially valuable — like older aspen stands — specifically for the sake of grouse and other wildlife, Jones said.
It has gotten some money to do that from groups such as the Ruffed Grouse Society and National Wild Turkey Federation.
But much of it has come from the record amount of Pittman-Robertson funding flowing into the agency, he said.
That’s money, collected in the form of a tax on the sale of firearms, ammunition and other sporting goods, that’s redistributed to the states.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Pennsylvania got nearly $28 million in funding in fiscal year 2014, more than every state but Texas and Alaska.
The money is likely to keep flowing, too.
According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, there were 6.95 million background checks for gun purchases in the first seven months of this year. That was the second highest for such a time period.
The resulting cutting has been terrific for grouse, Jones said.
“As soon as you start getting growth back in there, like blackberry brambles and greenbriar and Hercules club, the grouse start moving in. And those areas are really prime seven to 12 years post cut,” he said.
“When they’re really hard to get through, when they’re literally tearing the shirt off your back, that’s when it’s really good.”
It’s not only the commission that has been cutting trees. The state bureau of forestry also timbers to the tune of 6,000 to 8,000 acres annually, said Scott Miller, chief of its silviculture section. Locally, there have been about 5,030 acres cut on the Forbes State Forest in Westmoreland, Fayette and Somerset counties since 2000, said Corey Wentzel, its forest assistant manager.
The emphasis recently has been on linking those cuts with the other kinds of habitat grouse need throughout the year, said Emily Just, a biologist with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
That’s key, she said.
“Traditionally, we’ve seen a lot of habitat in small, isolated patches,” Just said. “That’s pretty hard for grouse to find and use.”
Whether all of that will boost grouse populations remains to be seen.
The impact of habitat work on public lands is blunted, to a degree, if nothing similar is occurring on surrounding private land or if there’s just no other forest nearby, Jones said.
There is evidence grouse impacted by West Nile virus in the early 2000s haven’t completely recovered, Williams added, though that’s something she hopes to study further. Suburban sprawl is also a problem, she said.
If those and other factors preclude a return to the grouse’s heyday, the passion hunters feel for the birds remains, William said.
“They are a thoroughly wild and skittish bird, sort of a symbol of what’s still wild. If you want them, you have to go and find them,” she said.
“But that’s sort of the romance of ruffed grouse. It’s why there are so many paintings and books and magazine covers about them.”