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For Grouse, It Starts with Habitat

Something happened in southeast Ohio in the early 1980s, something that will likely never happen again in this generation or the next. For seemingly inexplicable reasons, the grouse population exploded. Hunter reports of three to four flushes an hour, and more, were common. Most hunters bagged their limit after only a couple of hours afield, and they did so day after day. Compare that with reports from last year’s 40 cooperating grouse hunters who averaged 28 flushes per 100 hours hunted, or just two flushes per day. Not per hour. Per day. It begs the question: what happened to Ohio’s ruffed grouse population?

First, let’s look at why grouse populations boomed in the 1970s and 1980s. The number of farms in the United States peaked at around 7 million in the 1930s and dropped to around 2 million by 2000 and has been holding steady ever since. According to the Economic History Association, the rate of decline was sharpest during the 1950s and 1960s, and for almost two decades thereafter, much of that farmland was left to nature, and those lovely little orchards and pastures grew up into prime small game habitat. In southeast Ohio, and many agricultural areas throughout the Great Lakes Region, that translated into lots of grouse.

Since that boom in the early 1980s, grouse populations have steadily declined, finally bottoming out the last few years. This decline can be directly associated with one determining factor – most of eastern Ohio is no longer suitable grouse habitat. The forest supports populations of whitetails and turkeys just fine, but not grouse. Trees have been allowed to grow past maturity, and any cutting that has taken place hasn’t been enough. Five or ten acres here and there every ten years isn’t going to bring back the grouse population. For grouse to have a chance, we have to get radical with our logging practices.

Habitat loss and degradation are the main factors affecting ruffed grouse populations, according to a 2001 study by Daniel Dessecker and Daniel McAuley. They write that “Ongoing ruffed grouse research in 7 Appalachian states has documented relatively high nest success (69%), yet very low chick survival (25%) to age 5 weeks. Declines in young forest habitats and the isolation of these habitats in some landscapes may be limiting ruffed grouse and woodcock recruitment and therefore population densities” (Wildlife Society Bulletin).

Early successional habitat is vital to chick survival for a number of reasons, primarily food, shelter, and protection from predators. Another study done in 1963 by Ward M. Sharp found that the average lifespan of a clear-cut for brood use was 7-8 years. The 13-year study was conducted in the Barrens in Centre County, PA, and involved various stages and types of cuttings on a 735-acre tract. There are two other findings from this study that are particularly interesting.

First, beginning in 1951 (only one year after habitat management began), 7 grouse broods used the managed part of the area. In 1952, 10 broods. In 1953, 16 broods. In 1954, 10 broods. And in 1955, an amazing 21 broods! By comparison, in the area that was left unmanaged and with no habitat improvements, from 1951-1955, those numbers were only 3,2,2,3, and 3 broods, respectively.

The second finding of note is that all cutting was completed after the first few years of the study. No cutting was done during the last seven years. It’s no wonder that brood populations dropped from an early average of 18 to only 9 from 1956 to 1962 – the average during the last four years was only 7 broods.

Even after it peaked for brood use, the habitat remained good for adult birds for several more years. In fact, adult grouse can survive just fine in heavily-canopied forests, but like any population, reproduction and recruitment are crucial for survival of the species. When those adult birds are picked off by avian predators, hunters, or simply die of old age, there won’t be any young birds to replace them, and that’s exactly what’s happening in our woods today.

The timber industry has been just as much of an indicator about the health of our grouse population as anything. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, commercial logging was sparse and huge tracts of forestland were allowed to grow beyond maturity. A potential reason for this is that only 14% of the timberland in the eastern U.S. is in public ownership. Studies have shown that privately-owned land is much less likely to be timbered. As of 1988, early successional habitat required by ruffed grouse made up only 8% of the timberland in the Northeast, and as Dessecker and McAuley write, “declines in young forest are the result of changing management objectives and techniques, changing attitudes of landowners, a decline in farm abandonment, increased fire suppression, and increased urbanization.”

In recent years, biologists have looked to other factors such as West Nile Virus as a cause for grouse population declines. While that may play a small part, the key to grouse survival – as well as the survival of dozens of other species which are also declining – is early successional habitat, which according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) is at a 50-year low. In a recent PGC press release, Lisa Williams, a PGC game birds biologist, states that Pennsylvania lost about 30% of its young forest between 1980 and 2005, and declines continue. Similar patterns are happening in Ohio. The PGC, DCNR, Ruffed Grouse Society, and other agencies and organizations are trying to turn this trend around, but there’s only so much they can do.

Eventually, private landowners in Pennsylvania and other states that have been historic strongholds for ruffed grouse have to step up to the plate, too.

If we know that grouse and other wildlife populations are suffering because of a lack of early successional habitat, then why aren’t we promoting more and better logging practices? In short, our battle isn’t just with the bureaucrats in government. It’s also with the general, non-hunting public, and many times with those in our own ranks. We appreciate forests for their aesthetic value rather than their ability to sustain wildlife.

We need to change our thinking and support and promote timbering on public and private lands. It effects more than just grouse, too. Over-mature forests with very little ground cover are especially susceptible to deforestation by whitetails. Eventually, even turkeys and other wildlife stop using them, and you end up with a stand of pole timber that harbors nothing but shade. When a forest isn’t managed properly, it sets off a chain reaction that negatively effects the whole ecosystem.

Forest management defies modern day society’s demand for instant results. Rather, it’s a long term investment, and in order for it to be effective and produce sustainable results, we must continue investing for many years. The benefit is habitat that supports all types of wildlife, and eventually we’ll see the ruffed grouse rebound to its previous glory. It’s a long journey, but it will be worth it.

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