Ruffed Grouse Decline Linked to Loss of Young Forest

By Ad Crable in Bay Journal

(While this report focuses on states in the Chesapeake Bay drainage, it also applies to New England and other parts of the East. The following is a condensation of a longer article.)

The ruffed grouse, a strikingly beautiful bird that symbolizes wildness, is in trouble across its native range, including states in the Chesapeake Bay drainage.

The decline is growing in Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, and biologists point to two main causes: widespread loss of young forest habitat and deaths from the mosquito-borne West Nile virus.

Ruffed grouse

Ruffed grouse are in desperate need of young forest habitat, which can be created through management actions that mimic natural forest disturbances.

Warmer winters aren’t helping matters either, because grouse burrow into snow banks for protection from predators and the cold.

They are a game bird associated with engraved shotguns and days spent walking mountains with dogs and friends, and concern over their unrelenting decline has prompted sportsmen’s groups and states to shift timbering priorities and take other steps as part of a nascent conservation movement to save the bird.

“A grouse sighting shouldn’t become a rare bird alert on birdwatcher lists,” said Linda Ordiway, a wildlife biologist in Pennsylvania with the Ruffed Grouse Society.

A 2017 assessment by Northeast game managers found that the grouse population declined by at least 30 percent in Bay states over the last three decades. State Breeding Bird Atlas surveys tell a similar tale, showing that grouse numbers declined between 1989 and 2005 by 30 percent in Pennsylvania, 32 percent in Maryland and nearly 50 percent in West Virginia.

According to both biologists and hunters, some localized populations are winking out entirely.

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation says its grouse population has declined by an alarming 80 percent since the 1960s, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission estimates the state has lost 20 to 30 percent of its grouse population in the last four years alone.

Eighteen of the 38 states where ruffed grouse are native now list it as a species of concern.

Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia list the grouse as a species of greatest conservation need. Pennsylvania, where the ruffed grouse is the state bird, cut its grouse hunting season by more than half in 2017 in hopes of stemming the decline.

Other states have taken action, too. Indiana in 2019 placed the once-common ruffed grouse on its endangered species list after populations declined by 99 percent in the last 40 years. New Jersey, in the same year, cancelled its grouse hunting season and is considering adding the bird to its endangered species list.

But advocates say more aggressive steps are needed. The Ruffed Grouse Society, a 59-year-old nonprofit conservation group with 17,000 members, thinks grouse may well be on their way to endangered status nationwide unless there is a concentrated effort to protect and expand their habitat.

“Until we have large-scale habitat management, the population is not going to come back up, to be brutally honest,” said Chris Ryan, a biologist with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.

Ruffed grouse spend most of their time on the ground or in small trees eating buds, and do not migrate. In general, they live out their lives within a few acres of woods, which is why new efforts to improve habitat pivot on doing the work where remaining grouse are located.

Lack of Young Forests

The main reason for the loss of grouse is clear: declining habitat — not from development, but the paucity of young forests and brushy areas that grouse need to survive.

Those areas are disappearing as abandoned farmland and areas targeted for massive clearcutting a century ago grow into mature forests.

Young forest habitat in autumn

Timber harvests can create young forest in areas where ruffed grouse live, giving this much-loved game bird a chance to survive. Many other kinds of wildlife find food and take cover in the dense habitat as well./C. Fergus

Though grouse use all age classes of forests, they cannot do without thick stands of young forests 5 to 25 years old for cover, food, brood rearing and courting. Other species, such as the wild turkey, American woodcock, rabbits and migrating warblers also rely on such habitat.

Part of the challenge in cultivating young forest habitat is public resistance to tree-cutting. Fears of destructive clearcutting and sometimes any degree of timbering can bring lawsuits and howls of protests. That has held back tree-cutting on national forests in particular. The result is that forests get older but less diversified, and thus less resilient, say wildlife managers from Bay states and the Ruffed Grouse Society.

There’s also less fire on the forested landscape. For centuries, forest growth often was disturbed by fires caused by lightning strikes or intentionally set by Native Americans or settlers, leading to young-forest habitat with the stands of seedlings and saplings that allowed grouse to thrive.

“You can love your forest to death,” said Lisa Williams, the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s ruffed grouse biologist. “I always say that I am a tree hugger, too, but at the same time I realize that baby trees need hugs, too. We have several dozen species that are in trouble because they need these young forests.”

It’s no coincidence that two major young-forest habitat projects that the Ruffed Grouse Society is spearheading in Pennsylvania include as partners the American Bird Conservancy and National Audubon Society.

In Pennsylvania, only about 8 percent of public and private forests are made up of young forests – a 70-year-low.

West Nile Virus

If the habitat woes for grouse weren’t bad enough, it’s now been established that West Nile virus has been killing grouse in Pennsylvania, and almost certainly in other Bay drainage states, since the early 2000s.

“For grouse, the virus became the straw that broke the camel’s back in many areas of the state,” said Williams, who did the pioneering research on the virus in Pennsylvania. “Many populations that had hung on as they lost habitat winked out after [it] hit.”

She decided to look into the problem after veteran grouse hunters started calling her in 2013, insisting that places where they had hunted reliably for years were suddenly grouseless.

She calls grouse hunters “unsung heroes” for alerting scientists to the new threat. “Hunters certainly are the biggest advocates for grouse,” she said, noting that many have voluntarily cut back on hunting or stopped altogether until grouse numbers rebound.

Research has shown that the species of mosquitoes that affect grouse are less prevalent at higher altitudes, perhaps pointing the way for targeted habitat work.

Diverse, healthy forests may be the best way to help grouse withstand the virus as studies have shown that their populations rebound faster from virus-related mortality in good habitat as opposed to marginal cover.

Rescue Attempts

In New York, a worried Department of Environmental Conservation launched a Young Forest Initiative in 2015 to adjust timbering procedures in a way that will allow the regrowth of 12,000 acres into a stage of woods that features tree seedlings, saplings, woody vines, shrubs, grasses and flowering plants.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission increased by 50 percent the acreage of woods on state game lands that are cut to create emerging young forest habitat. The agency also has hired more people to work with owners of private forests, which account for 71 percent of all woodland in the state.

A new online tool in the state, called Grouse Priority Area Siting Tool, flags areas for ideal grouse habitat and invites private landowners to seek free technical support to make habitat improvements.

Clearcut regrowing in young forest

MeadWestvaco Company created young forest (right) in West Virginia. The new habitat is much thicker and offers better cover and different food compared to the more-mature forest on left./L. Ordiway

In Virginia, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has five biologists who work full-time with private landowners on forest management, including creating early successional woods.

An increase in the controlled burning of natural areas could also help grouse recover, as it increasingly becomes a tool in Bay states to boost plant life on the forest floor.

In West Virginia, resource managers are establishing early successional forest habitat along gas and powerline rights-of-way and around field edges on state lands.

State wildlife managers and sportsmen’s groups are united in their belief that the best hope of getting grouse to rebound to viable numbers is creating that critical young forest habitat.

“Those birds don’t move. They don’t migrate. They die within 2 or 3 miles from where they hatch,” said Williams of the Pennsylvania Game Commission. “We have to worry about those birds finding each other to reproduce. We have got to get active in creating habitat.”

And it has to be done on a landscape level, not isolated projects, for grouse to find each other, stressed Mike Schiavone, game section leader for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

“Many species you can save by just preserving an area and stopping hunting,” said Bob Long, upland game bird biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “It’s a totally different type of effort . . . when you’re trying to restore a species that depends on human disturbance. It’s not a popular thing. The public at large doesn’t like cutting trees.”

It won’t be easy. Timbering costs money. The commercial logging market is down. Most woods are privately owned. And improvements have to be done in the right places.