A multitude of factors keep ruffed grouse numbers low in our state. What can be done to reverse this trend? Read on! (December 2009)
The ruffed grouse is truly a bird of sport in West Virginia. Unfortunately, a gradual decline in population has been noted over the past two decades. Possibly the largest wildlife study every done in the United States is the Appalachian Cooperative Grouse Research Project. The final project report was issued in August 2004, yet the grouse decline continues. It continues, not because there is a lack of information, but because there has been a remarkable lack of action to properly nourish the land by bringing diversity to it.
The most significant factor in the decline of ruffed grouse in West Virginia relates to a loss of quality habitat. There are other culprits, of course, like predation and chemical or environmental factors, but the main bane of the ruffed grouse population is poor woodland management, specifically where there is a predominance of mature, canopied trees. These mature forests are the rule, rather than the exception, in almost all of West Virginia. Where this is the situation, forest floors rarely see the light of day under the umbrella-like canopy.
It is this large umbrella that blocks out the sunlight necessary to promote a lush, green understory of grasses, smaller hardwoods, softwoods and evergreens, as well as various small, woody plants. This wide variety of plant life would provide essential nourishment and cover, not only for grouse, but also for many other desirable animal species. The berries, fruits and seeds so eagerly browsed by the ruffed grouse are known as "soft mast." It is the lack of soft mast production in the woodlands of West Virginia that is partly to blame for the grouse population decline here.
This is a good time to point out that hunting is in trouble. It is under pressure on a number of fronts, not the least of which is the declining grouse population.
It is my contention that the ability to enjoy the outdoor experience is the birthright of every American. It is our heritage, our family tradition and a big part of our lives.
Hunting rights -- no doubt they are essential to the American Experience. But let's face it. What good are hunting rights if there is nothing to hunt? We must have a strategy for nourishing the hunting land by restoring the habitat! What is at stake is the tradition of outdoor pursuits, of hunters, their dogs and these wonderful upland birds with drumming wings. We are the stakeholders, the stewards of tradition. It is up to us.
Hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts must do everything that we can to help build the resource. Land that has been developed for human use is habitat lost. There is nothing that can be done about people building homes, roads and infrastructure necessary for a high quality of life. What can be done is to show due concern through activism on behalf of the quality of habitat for grouse and other woodland creatures.
What about predators? Predation occurs differently at different stages in the grouse's life cycle. Snakes and small mammals most frequently take eggs and chicks. Adult grouse are most frequently taken by birds of prey, specifically owls and hawks.
Hunters need to see predators as more of a constant and less of a variable in this equation. The reason for this is that predator control is neither a viable nor effective way of restoring a robust ruffed grouse population. Besides, many of the predators that dine on ruffed grouse are protected species. It just makes sense to focus our attention, then, on areas where our efforts will have a positive effect.
Although owls and hawks both target ruffed grouse, the enabler to the predatory opportunities is lack of cover because of the large canopy of mature trees. Imagine a large horned owl sitting high on the limb of a tree in a mature forest. With no middle story or understory, there is no place for the prey species to hide. In this instance, the horned owl can swoop in, unobstructed by small limbs. It is the equivalent of fast food for raptors! This is the present state of the woodlands of West Virginia.
Contrast that scene with the same horned owl sitting on a high limb and trying to keep his eye on a grouse that is under the cover of the limbs and leaves of small trees. The flight path is obstructed, so the owl, seeking to improve his position, flies in closer. He is detected and the grouse is able to escape to cover that is more dense. These branches, leaves and limbs of the understory are the friend of the grouse. This is the protection that the grouse needs. Unfortunately, though, this adjacent cover is badly missing, due to poor forestry management practices.
Proper habitat also provides for nutrition for the life cycle. Chicks feed on new grass growth and the insects that live in and around grassy areas. A tall canopy of trees blocks out the sunlight that is critical for a varied ecosystem. Managing the land for grouse means a mixed prescription of clear-cutting (reforestation) and/or prescribed burning, select cutting (thinning), planting, and allowing the existence of legacy areas. Legacy areas are strips of hardwoods, dominated by large oak trees that provide acorns, which the grouse need for nutrition; these areas should be located in proximity to areas of cover, which the grouse need for protection from predators.
A tall canopy of trees blocks out the sunlight that is critical for a varied ecosystem.
The concept for providing habitat is not new. You see it all the time. Deer hunters plant food plots in relation to thick bedding areas to attract, feed and retain a healthy herd. Fishermen construct artificial reefs to provide those key ingredients, shelter and food, to hold their favorite game fish. Grouse hunters just need to borrow a page from their hunting and fishing brethren and try to provide habitat for the life cycle of the grouse.
A male grouse needs space and it needs ridges, which it uses as a sounding stage for courtship. Female grouse require brood cover and they all need fall and winter cover after the leaves have fallen. The grouse needs to have access to lower elevation areas to find food and water. In between the nesting spots and feeding and watering areas should be sufficient cover to protect them from predators, mostly from above.
The highest grouse populations presently are seen in the southwestern counties and the mountain counties, where surface coal mining practices from years ago have developed into an expanse of high-stem density hardwoods and shrubs, universally described as desirable grouse habitat. Boone, Logan, McDowell and Mingo counties show some of the highest flush rates in the state, thanks to a land surface makeover. Because of the nature of the practice of strip-mining, the land was laid bare. The emergent growth in subsequent years gave rise to the prod
uction of soft mast and cover. The result is a present grouse population where there is promise of a localized trend reversal.
The lowest grouse populations are in the north-central counties and in the Northern Panhandle, according to the Division of Natural Resources. Flushes are, frankly, few and far between. Unfortunately, these populations have been on the decline for a generation in these areas. The habitat in these declining areas must undergo a rejuvenation and regular maintenance to manage the resources. At stake is our time-honored tradition, one that we can hand off to the next generation of wingshooters.
It is suggested that clear-cutting and prescribed burning in proximity to mature stands of oaks will provide a triple bonus. As discussed before, emerging growth stands provide critical cover for birds to hide from predators, and they produce nutritious soft-mast items for grouse to eat.
It will also give white-tailed deer new growth on which to browse, so that they do not monopolize the acorn crop that grouse require for their survival. As whitetails get to their carrying capacity, as they are in some areas of the state, mature forests experience a decimation of almost all woody plants up to the browse line. White-tailed deer will consume every acorn on the forest floor and then all of the plants that the grouse need for cover and nesting areas. The answer for the health of both species is to improve the habitat for their mutual benefit by fostering early-growth stands near the mature oak forests.
As suggested previously, it is critical that hunters become active. Familiarize yourself with the Appalachian Cooperative Grouse Research Project and its findings through scientific study. Become active in the planning process for the development of national forests and wildlife management areas. If you own private land, begin your own grouse habitat improvement program, using the ACGRP suggestions for improving habitat. Volunteer to provide research data that will be used to assist biologists in formulating strategies to help reverse population decline.
The ACGRP gave us the scientific information. What we do with the information will be our legacy as stewards of the resource.