Numbers of grouse hunters in Pennsylvania are down, yet there are plenty of birds in areas where there is suitable habitat. What can be done to make hunting "the grandest game bird of all" more exciting? Our expert has some answers.
By Vic Attardo
One of the purest sounds of fall is the thumping wing beat of a ruffed grouse as it flies through Penn's Woods.
The last available harvest records (2001) show that across the state 161,000 grouse hunters took 160,000 grouse. Compare this to 1995 when 240,000 hunters harvested 315,000 birds. Those figures make the mid-'90s seem like the "good old days" of grouse gunning. But even then a decline was becoming evident. In 1990, some 353,000 grouse were harvested by about the same number of hunters that hit the woods in 1995.
THEY'RE OUT THERE Is the state's grouse population dwindling? Maybe not, according to Bill Palmer, a Pennsylvania Game Commission grouse biologist.
"The number of hunters drives the harvest more than the grouse population," Palmer said. "Grouse hunters are in decline, maybe more than grouse."
The average, casual grouse hunter averages only about one bird per season, and in today's "I want action" world, only the most dedicated of sportsmen are willing to devote time and energy to such a low return.
But like anything else, the more time and effort one puts into a project, the greater the rewards. Palmer says he knows of a cadre of dedicated grouse hunters who harvest three or four birds per season. These hunters also provide him with much of what is known about the ruffed grouse in Pennsylvania. Cooperators turn in annual survey reports, which include flushing rates and other information. The latest figures indicate a flushing rate of 1.5 grouse per hour.
In the mid-'90s the flushing rate was 1.73 grouse per hour, so it does seem that the harvest decline may be hunter-driven.
Photo by Steve Carpenteri
In addition to the decline in hunter-harvest ratio, the grouse harvest is also affected by habitat, and good grouse habitat is at a premium across the state.
Grouse-specific habitat in Pennsylvania has declined by nearly 2 million acres since the late '70s.
Grouse thrive on habitat that foresters describe as seedling-sapling-stage growth. The term refers to the age of the woods after a forest is cleared. According to Palmer, the prime grouse habitat window is between seven and 15 years after cutting.
His description of good grouse habitat is simple enough.
"It's the stuff you have a tough time walking though," he said.
In a survey of Pennsylvania forests in 1978, 21 percent was in the seedling-sapling stage; in 1989, the figure had fallen to 16 percent; and in the latest survey in 2003, the number was only 11 percent.
WE'RE CUTTING THE WRONG TREES With such a clear relationship between young woods and grouse numbers, hunters might ask why state agencies aren't doing more for grouse. The political-social stigma of clearcutting is one factor, and the other might be that the PGC does not control all of the land in the state.
"So much land in Pennsylvania is in private hands," Palmer said. "It doesn't matter what the Game Commission does (on state holdings)."
Ironically, the need for specific habitat may be partially to blame for the declining numbers of grouse in the state. One tree that is critical to good grouse habitat is young aspen, but old aspen are not being removed from the forest because the wood is of little economic importance.
The Game Commission and the Department of Natural Resources award contracts for cutting on state lands, but when the tract includes a large amount of economically undesirable trees, the value of those contracts is decreased.
"In other words, the state agencies make less when they incorporate bad timber with the good," Palmer said. "There is simply no money in cutting non-commercial trees."
On one state game lands, however, the "bad" wood is being cut with the good. State Game Lands 176 in Centre County is a study project for grouse, so fewer commercial trees are being harvested. The project is designed to determine the relationship between the "bad" and the "good" wood types as they relate to grouse. By the way, the portion of SGL 176 marked "Research Area" is closed to grouse hunting.
MORE THAN JUST TREES Not only does habitat play a major role in the grouse population, there are other factors beyond human control that also affect grouse numbers.
One is weather and the other is the long list of grouse predators. Wet, cold springs can have a dramatic affect on chick mortality. Avian predators, such as hawks and owls take the majority of the birds, said Palmer.
Hunting also affects the grouse population, Palmer noted, removing about 25 percent of the yearly population.
"Hunting is mortality," Palmer noted, "but if you have good habitat, the grouse can replenish their numbers."
The spring nest size of a female grouse is 11 or 12 eggs. A good survival rate for that number of eggs would be three or four young grouse in the following fall.
Despite the seemingly gloomy grouse picture, Palmer said that when hunters find the right habitat, grouse numbers could be good.
NORTHWEST REGION Based on flushing rates, the northwest section of the Keystone State, in particular Warren and Forest counties, has the highest number of grouse. The flushing rate during the last available count was 2.1 birds per hour.
The amount of public land in Warren is staggering. West of the Allegheny River, SGL 86 contains 14,227 acres and SGL 143, 8,177 acres. East of the river is SGL 29, with 9,363 acres.
But the jewel in the region is Allegheny National Forest, with over 513,000 acres and over 600 campsites. For information on grouse hunting in the national forest, contact the Allegheny National Forest office at (814) 723-5150.
For information about Warren County, call the Northern Alleghenies Vacation Region at (800) 624-7802.
SOUTHWEST REGION The Southwest Region, known as
the Laurel Highlands, had a flushing rate of 1.5 birds per hour in the latest survey and the region has substantial public ground.
Ohiopyle State Park can serve as the focal point for hunters. SGL 111 on Laurel Hill near Summit Station offers 10,520 acres. SGL 265 with 380 acres south of the state park is noteworthy for grouse. SGL 57 west of the park on Chestnut Ridge contains nearly 45,000 acres.
For information on the state park, call (724) 329-8591; write the Laurel Highland Visitors Bureau, 120 Main St., Ligonier, PA 15658-5661; or call (724) 238-5661.
NORTHCENTRAL REGION Palmer believes the Northcentral Region combines the best flushing rate with the highest amount of public land. The region's flushing rate is 1.8 birds per hour.
Good grouse habitat can be found in portions of Tioga State Forest with 161,600 acres. Access some good grouse grounds by traveling along Route 6. At Marsh Creek, take Strait Run Road to get along Broad Ridge. Call (570) 724-2868 for more information.
Another good pick in the region is SGL 66 in Sullivan County, which was timbered about five years ago and is producing good grouse numbers on roughly 8,100 acres. Also good is SGL 57 in Luzerne and Wyoming counties with nearly 45,000 acres.
SOUTHCENTRAL REGION In the Southcentral Region, look to the northern portion of Lancaster County for good grouse habitat. SGL 156 near Popular Grove, with over 4,500 acres, has been a hotspot for grouse for several years. Portions of Dauphin County suffered some severe gypsy moth defoliation several years back and the area is prime for grouse, especially on SGL 264, with 8,826 acres, along Broad Mountain.
For more information, call the Pennsylvania Capital Regions Vacation Bureau at (800) 995-0969.
In Huntingdon County, try the Jim Bashline memorial tracts with 1,400 acres around Raystown Lake. Call (888) RAYSTOWN for more information.
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