The region's habitat problems continue, but New England's grouse hunters can still find some birds if they know where to look. Our expert has the story. (October 2009)
Cold, wet nesting seasons from 2005 to 2007 didn't help grouse numbers over much of New England. Last year's broods fared better, and biologists throughout the region said that if spring 2009 turned out to be warm and dry, it could have a great influence on the abundance of ruffed grouse available next fall.
Another continuous challenge facing grouse populations is the loss of early-successional habitat necessary for food and nesting ground cover. Wildlife experts throughout New England are working to re-establish good grouse cover, but every state still has some areas where these popular game birds thrive. There are birds out there if you are willing to find them, so strap on your best leather hiking boots and get going!
Here's a roundup of best-bet destinations for the 2009 grouse season according to wildlife biologists in your state:
Grouse numbers are headed downward in the Nutmeg State, mostly because of the loss of habitat, according to Michael Gregonis, a wildlife biologist with the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection's Wildlife Division.
"We encourage landowners and state foresters to implement clearcuts whenever possible," Gregonis said. "That practice has been demonstrated to help create good grouse habitat."
Connecticut's grouse season runs from Oct. 17 through Nov. 30, with a daily limit of one bird and a season limit of eight birds.
Gregonis said the official outlook for fall 2009 was "fair to poor." However, hunters can improve those odds.
"Grouse hunters should look for areas where timber management has occurred in recent years," Gregonis advised. "The most productive grouse areas in Connecticut are in the western portion of the state. Housatonic State Forest covers nearly 11,000 acres and contains pockets of good grouse habitat."
Housatonic State Forest
Housatonic State Forest, near Sharon and Cornwall, is a multi-use property managed for wildlife, watershed protection and forest products, among other things. Wood harvesting operations fall under the domain of the DEP's Division of Forestry, and a quick conversation with a state forester should reveal where early successional stage habitat may be found on this vast tract of land.
Contact the DEP office at (860) 424-3000. Check DeLorme's Connecticut/Rhode Island Atlas and Gazetteer, Map 49, for area details.
Other public lands in the western corner of the state that allow grouse hunting include Algonquin State Forest, which covers 1,604 acres near Colebrook.
American Legion SF offers hunters 778 acres of public access near Barkhamsted.
For details on these state forests, check DeLorme's Map 51.
Robbins Swamp WMA in Canaan spans about 1,120 acres. Check DeLorme's Map 49 for area details.
For more Connecticut grouse hunting information, go to www.ct.gov/ dep/site/default.asp. For travel information, go to www.visitconnecticut. com or www.tourism.state.ct.us.
The Pine Tree State is still one of the most forested in the nation. Thus, grouse numbers have not been as seriously affected here by habitat issues.
"What happened in Maine was that in 2005 we kind of bottomed out on our grouse population," said Brad Allen, a wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. "Grouse numbers were quite low, but things are steadily improving. I'd like to think this trend is going to continue through 2009. I'm optimistic.
"We had a sequence of fairly poor springs in a row, so the grouse population was trending downward," Allen continued. "Grouse numbers were so few that people were calling and asking me if we were going to change the season. Hunters, truthfully, have a very small role in grouse survival, so I don't bother to try to adjust the season."
Allen said that a couple of areas of extreme northern Maine have offered very good hunting for the past few years, with the rest of the state offering "fair to good" grouse hunting.
"You just have to wait," he said. "Population fluctuations in grouse are fairly well documented. They will come around again."
Allen said that Maine has 15 million acres of commercial forestland — all those active timber harvests create plenty of the young forests that grouse like.
"Some in southern Maine, in particular, are growing into optimal grouse habitat," he said.
Grouse season in Maine runs from Oct. 1 through Dec. 31 with a daily limit of four birds.
"For the last couple of years, hunting has been best on commercial timberlands up around Clayton Lake and in the North Maine Woods, which are all open to hunting," Allen said. "The northwest corner of the state has a lot of birds."
The North Maine Woods is a multiple ownership-multiple use management area spanning over 3.5 million acres of commercial forestland and is open for public recreation. Both the St. John and Allagash rivers flow through these rugged woods.
A gate fee is charged to access the North Maine Woods. However, visitors should remember that logging trucks always have the right of way here. This is a working forest. Hunters should yield to log trucks and park well off roadways.
For maps, information and more, call (207) 435-6213 or visit www.northmainewoods.org.
Maine's most northerly public lands are in Aroostook County. One spot to try is the 4,360-acre Dickwood WMA that is about six miles northwest of the town of Eagle Lake, or 6,482-acre Gordon Manuel WMA in the towns of Hodgdon and Linneus.
Check DeLorme's Maine Atlas and Gazetteer, maps 67 and 53.
General hunting information may be had by calling (207) 287-8000, or go to www.maine.gov/ifw.
For travel information, call the Maine Office of Tourism at (888) 624-6345 or go to www.visitmaine. com.
Bay State grouse numbers have remained relat
ively steady over the past 10 to 15 years, according to David Scarpitti, an upland game bird biologist with MassWildlife.
"Data from our annual drumming survey indicate that statewide grouse populations have been relatively stable with some slight annual variations that are probably attributable to various environmental conditions," Scarpitti said.
Overall, grouse populations in southern New England have declined over the past few decades due to the loss of young forests and old-field habitat, he said.
"MassWildlife actively manages many of our WMAs to benefit a variety of wildlife dependent upon early-successional habitats including grouse, woodcock, song birds, etc.," Scarpitti said.
While harvest data is not gathered on small game, Scarpitti said that anecdotal reports suggested that the 2008 grouse season went well. The 2009 grouse season dates are Oct. 17 to Nov. 28, with a daily bag of three grouse and a season limit of 15 birds. Scarpitti said potential success of the 2009 season would be hard to call beforehand.
"It was a tough winter in many places with long periods of deep snow and cold temperatures," he said. "Large areas of central Massachusetts were influenced by a very destructive ice storm, too. This could have negatively impacted the breeding population of grouse where most tree limbs were ice covered.
"On the flip side, areas most severely impacted by the ice storm may soon become very productive grouse habitats," Scarpitti noted. "In areas where large numbers of trees were toppled, dense new growth of trees and shrubs will occur over the next several years, potentially providing extremely productive early-successional grouse habitat."
The biologist did share suggestions on some best-bet grouse hunting destinations.
"Leyden WMA in Leyden is a relatively new acquisition that has a good number of grouse and woodcock on it," Scarpitti said. "Also, recent habitat management activities at Muddy Brook WMA should be a good bet for grouse."
Leyden WMA covers 375 acres of mostly hilly terrain. There's an abandoned field gone back to brush, as well as tracts of mixed hardwood forest.
Check DeLorme's Massachusetts Atlas and Gazetteer, Map 23, for area details.
Muddy Brook WMA offers hunters 710 acres of access near Hardwick. Access can be had off Patril Hollow or Muddy Brook roads. Check DeLorme's MAG, map 36.
For more grouse-hunting information, visit the MassWildlife Web site at www.mass.gov/dfwele/dfw, or call (617) 626-1590.
For general Bay State travel information, visit www.massvacation.com, or call (617) 973-8500.
Grouse numbers look to be headed upward in the Granite State in 2009 and beyond.
"We have no way of estimating the actual number of grouse in our state," said Julie Robinson, Small Game Project leader for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. "We do conduct grouse drumming routes in spring, a small-game survey which looks at hunter efforts, and a grouse wing and tail survey that gives us age, sex and distribution data. Over the past couple of years, we have seen an increase in the number of juveniles to adult females, which is a good sign. Grouse numbers seem to be on an upward trend, in large part due to good weather during the critical brood and rearing period."
Robinson noted that grouse are hardy birds, but they are vulnerable to inclement weather during the brood season.
Luckily, spring 2008 was kind to nesting birds and the weather looked favorable going into spring 2009, she said.
The department also works to improve grouse odds even more.
"We work with large and small land owners, timber companies, conservation groups and on our own wildlife management areas to increase early-successional habitat, which is so critical to grouse and many other wildlife species."
Robinson said that hunter feedback about grouse season 2008 was very positive.
"Hunters were seeing more birds than they had in the past few years," she said. "We had very good soft mast and some hard mast production in 2008, which sustained the birds through the winter."
New Hampshire's hunting season runs from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31 with a four-bird bag limit. Weather and mast supplies are unpredictable before any fall season, but barring any disastrous weather events, Robinson said this fall's grouse season should be a good one.
"Spring 2009 came early to New Hampshire, which is a good thing for nesting birds, including grouse," she said. "If this weather continues through the nesting and brood rearing period, I would say that we are going to have an excellent ruffed grouse hunting season this fall."
White Mountain National Forest
Robinson said that the White Mountain National Forest in the Kilkenny area has always provided good grouse hunting.
Management duties at the WMNF are shared between the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department and the U.S. Forest Service.
Forestry practices here are geared toward improving wildlife habitat. Hunting is allowed on all WMNF lands with the appropriate state hunting license (the WMNF spills over the border into Maine).
Hunting on private land within the national forest is prohibited without landowner permission. There are some common-sense regulations in place, such as not discharging a firearm within 150 yards of buildings, campsites or populated areas and not firing across roads.
For more information about the White Mountain National Forest, visit www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests.
Or check DeLorme's New Hampshire Atlas and Gazetteer, maps 17, 44 and 72.
Kearsarge WMA spans 1,050 acres at the northern base of Mount Kearsarge near Andover. Because this WMA abuts the 4,965-acre Kearsarge Mountain State Forest, there are more than 6,000 contiguous acres of wildlife habitat here to shelter grouse and other critters.
Check DeLorme's Map 35 for area details.
For more information about grouse hunting in New Hampshire, visit www.wildlife.state.nh.us.
For travel planning, call (800) 386-4664 to order a vacation guidebook, or call (603) 271-2665 to speak to New Hampshire Department of Tourism staff, or go to www.visitnh.gov.
The Ocean State has been harder hit by development tha
n most New England states. Consequently, grouse numbers are down this year.
"I have no estimate for the grouse population in Rhode Island, only to say that we have a very low sustainable population," said Brian Tefft, principal wildlife biologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management's Division of Fish and Wildlife. "Grouse have declined significantly from the 1970s, primarily due to habitat changes, forest maturation, forest conversion to residential and commercial uses and significant increases in preparation due to forest fragmentation and low-quality habitats."
Despite lower bird numbers, Rhode Island does have a short grouse season, open from the third Saturday in October through the end of November, with a one bird per day bag limit.
Potential state WMAs containing grouse include Killingly WMA in Glocester and George Washington Management Area in Burrilville.
Killingly WMA offers hunters 396 acres of grouse hunting opportunity. Access is off Quinn's Hill Road. George Washington Management area's 3,489 acres can be accessed off U.S. Route 44. Check DeLorme's Map 64 for details on both destinations.
For Rhode Island hunting information, call (401) 222-6800 or visit www.dem.ri.gov.
For travel information, go to www.visitrhodeisland.com, or call (800) 556-2484.
Even in the heavily forested Green Mountain State, wildlife managers are keeping an eye on grouse numbers.
"There are concerns about long-term population levels due to declining habitat caused by less forest management, declining forest economy, development, and reduction of private property into smaller units," said John Gobeille, a district wildlife biologist for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. "Ruffed grouse are managed through many habitat management projects on state wildlife management areas and state forests. Grouse are often the focus species on projects concerning aspen management and apple tree release projects."
Gobeille said the 2008 fall grouse season was "average to good." Northeastern and northwestern sections of the state fared better than others.
The 2009 ruffed grouse season runs from the last Saturday in September through Dec. 31 with a daily bag limit of four birds.
In the northwest part of the state, recent management efforts have occurred on Little Otter Creek WMA, Robbins Mountain WMA and Lewis Creek WMA. The northeast section, also known as the Northeast Kingdom, has good grouse hunting on Bill Sladyk WMA and Stream Mill Brook WMA. In southern Vermont, it is worth checking Plymsbury WMA and Whipple Hollow WMA.
For more information on grouse hunting in Vermont, call Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department office in Rutland at (802) 786-0040 or visit www.vtfishandwildlife.com.
For travel information, call the Vermont Department of Tourism at (802) 828-3237 or visit www.travel-vermont.com.