COLUMN: After decades of research, ruffed grouse populations are still hurting

The title of this column may seem misleading to the wandering eye that doesn’t care to read further, but in all actuality, a large portion of the country — and especially West Virginia — is faced with a critical problem.

But even then, critical problems are subjective, right? Like global warming, protections being rolled back on our nation’s wetlands, you name it and people will roll with their own set of “facts” that are actually feelings or opinions. The fact is, there’s only one set of facts, but in our incredibly polarized world that seems to not matter.

This isn’t a political column, I promise, but now that I have your attention I’d like to come full circle to my leading paragraph: Ruffed grouse are disappearing, and that’s a serious concern.

I know for a 25-year-old journalist to tell what may be an older reader base that an animal has been disappearing under their noses for the better part of the last 30 years comes off as weird, or maybe even irritating. I’m not a scientist, nor do I ever act or write like I’m one. I don’t know all of the intricacies of grouse habitat, but I know the basics. I know what bird habitat looks like. Further, I know what birds thrive on. My basic knowledge comes from growing up around a group of Spellmans who were raised on a tiny farm in Doddridge County, and from the conversations I overheard growing up, and the books about bird species my dad has laying around our cabin. It also comes from the hours of research I’ve put into learning about grouse, waterfowl, pheasants and other species so I can better appreciate the animals I hunt.

And even though that’s a limited bank of knowledge, my job gives me the pleasure to talk to the scientists and other experts in their respective field. A while ago I wanted to write a story about waterfowl hunting in our state — that story eventually became the column about going on a guided hunt — but the Division of Natural Resources expert I was interviewing and I eventually got on the topic of ruffed grouse. I knew there was a problem, but I didn’t realize how deep-rooted it was. That interview with avian expert Mike Peters was just the surface of what’s now becoming a multipart series about the diminishing ruffed grouse habitat in West Virginia told from multiple angles. I hope you join me in what will be a multiple-month project.

So let’s begin.

Plenty of problems…

There are many factors that have led to the decline in ruffed grouse in the Mountain State, but I’m going to hit on what I see as the top two: Loss of habitat and West Nile Virus. However, before we get into the problems, I think it’s best to start with the last big bird boom.

“In the early 1960s there was a mass abandonment of farmland in [the state] which grew into early-successional forests,” Peters said. “Those first 10-15 years are important to grouse, so they flourished in that abandonment. But since then, those forests have been let go and matured. West Virginia is nearly 80 percent forested, and the bad thing about that is we consider most of that mature forest. Very little of it is the young forests that grouse and other species need [to thrive]. That’s been hurting our grouse population. And that’s driven by the lack of burning and cutting trees.”

One reason there’s so much old, mature forest is because, at some point in our country’s history of conservation, those in charge began to hammer that forest fires and timbering were doing more damage than good. And I’m not here to deny that, however, I also won’t overlook that smart, controlled burning and cutting out old trees in certain areas helps forest regeneration and health. Not to mention, controlled burns can help stave off large-scale forest fires in the case that one would begin.

“For the longest time, we saw clear cuts and thought, ‘Oh, clear cuts are bad, they’re horrible looking and cause soil erosion,’ and now to get people thinking clear cuts aren’t actually that bad if they’re done right — with sediment control and it’s planned out — they’re really good,” Peters said. And we [the DNR] helped develop that mentality.”

It should be noted that the WVDNR hasn’t just overlooked this problem. There have been projects run and information put out to the public over the years to help combat that. As for the results, that’s for a later story.

The other problem that has plagued multiple bird species is West Nile Virus. Transmitted by infected mosquitoes, the virus was discovered in the United States just before the turn of the 21st century. Our neighbor to the north, Pennsylvania, has been hit hard by WNV and has had to take multiple steps to try and save its state bird. In my opinion, one of the biggest — if not the biggest — steps has been boosting habitat at higher elevations where the mosquito that carries the disease tends to not go. Further, according to the PA Game Commission Research Summary, “WNV peak years are most likely triggered by weather, so the timing of peak years will vary in other states, regions and time periods.” Although West Virginia has its own climate, Pennsylvania is still a good example to look at since it isn’t entirely different than ours.

…but ones that may have a quick fix

Of course, this is all tied together, as the Pennsylvania WNV summary ends as such:

“WNV is a Call to Action to create more high‐quality habitat at a landscape scale. This has always been a priority for many of our conservation partners, but with the onset of this additional mortality factor and its potential role in grouse declines, urgent action is needed. PA’s preliminary data suggests that habitat quality may affect the recovery of grouse populations. Until the protective mechanism of high‐quality habitat is defined, managers should focus on creating areas with diverse native food sources and thick protective cover to support birds if and when they are exposed to WNV.”

To bring this all home, I’d like to cite an article I recently read on, a piece focused around logging in the eastern U.S. and how that could help grouse. A few paragraphs in, it states, “The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission’s avid grouse hunter survey showed hunters flushed 1.25 birds per hour on public lands in 1990. Last year, they reported .6 flushes per hour of effort. Trends are similar on public lands in Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Tennessee.” (Of note, in 2014 Pennsylvania’s WNV survey recorded West Virginia hunters flushed roughly 1.2 birds per hour).

The article isn’t just about grouse, either. Where grouse thrive, other animals do, too. The problem is, folks simply don’t want to see forests timbered out. But what most don’t know is that forests begin regenerating quick — the MeatEater article notes within a year. And to those people who want to tie up timber sales in the courts, maybe its time to sit down at the table with the pro-timbering folks again. I understand that we can’t cut out an inappropriate amount of trees, but if you’re truly concerned about conservation, don’t you think you’d be on board with a responsible logging plan?

It doesn’t take a scientist to understand that.

This is the first in a multipart story series concerning the disappearing tradition of grouse hunting. The series will dive into multiple angles of the sport to better understand the problem, solutions and more.