LISTEN: Caving, disease and innovation – Lisa Williams’ journey from small-town West Virginia to the forefront of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s ruffed grouse restoration mission
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Lisa Williams has always done things outside of the box. She’s not bound to the normal barriers that others have been, which is why she’s now leading an effort to restore ruffed grouse not just in her resident state of Pennsylvania but all through Appalachia.
Growing up in Glen Dale, it was unheard of for a girl to hunt in her family. To counter the missed adventures wielding a firearm or bow and exploring her family’s hunting grounds as a child, she adopted what she calls a “nerdy” side of things: Learning how to process animals to learn about how the animal works. This naturally transpired into a love for wildlife biology, which she used to attend Juniata College for undergrad before acquiring her Master’s at Penn State. But in 1988, before she finished her Bachelor’s degree, her mother passed away and things took a turn for the worst. That was until the Pennsylvania Game Commission gave her a shot, jumpstarting her longstanding career as a wildlife biologist.
“I ran out of money for college, dropped out of school and was hired by the Game Commission to do bat surveys,” Williams said.
Her experience with caving landed her that first job, which led her to her current role as the program specialist for ruffed grouse and webless migratory game birds with the Commission. Before she was promoted to the lead position, however, the move from bats to grouse came on the heels of another low time in her life. After 20 years of population gains and advances in research, White Nose Syndrome swept through the United States, decimating North American bat populations. It especially hit hard in Pennsylvania, devastating biologists who had been working tirelessly to help the animals. However, her experience with White Nose put her in prime position to experience the full effect of the West Nile Virus epidemic which swept through many bird species like a wildfire, albeit not linked to the decline of grouse until 2015 – one of Williams’ discoveries.
“We seem to be almost uniquely hard hit in the mid-Atlantic states,” Williams said. “When I look at bird declines, not just grouse but other susceptible birds, I see a swath of impact that cuts right across this mid-Atlantic region – New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Maryland. And trying to figure out where those edges are is difficult because a lot of states don’t really do active West Nile surveillance anymore, and nobody is doing active sick bird surveillance except with crows. You see these fingerprints in the data, but the surveys aren’t out there to give a definitive look at impacts on other birds.”
Williams views data from West Nile mosquito vectors to determine virus prominence. It’s from this data that she’s been able to determine different factors that allow the mosquito species that harbor West Nile to thrive.
“Warm and wet springs allow mosquitoes to start their breeding cycle sooner,” she said. “We have 60 different mosquito species but there’s one that keeps showing up as the issue in our woodlands, and that vector can go from egg to adult in 8-10 days. In a warm spring, people say, ‘Yeah it got warmer a month early,’ but that’s huge for mosquitoes because that allows so many more generations of breeding that it becomes this exponential increase. Then the precipitation throughout the summer plays a role because the wetter it is the more water you have laying on the ground as breeding pools.
“They like stagnant, shallow water, so we used to think the best conditions for disease is a warm, wet spring followed by a hot, dry summer because hot and dry create stagnant water. Then in 2018, we had a warm, wet spring and a totally soaking wet summer. It rained almost every week, and that produced a record-level of mosquitoes and disease. So now maybe a warm, wet spring and summer are the worst.”
Pennsylvania’s data from 2017 and 2018 reflects those weather patterns. Although the virus has been prevalent since 1999, those back-to-back seasons were particularly bad. In 2017, the fall/winter grouse flush rates observed by hunters were 0.88 per hour, which was down from the average rates in the mid-2010s. The following year was much worse as flush rates dropped to 0.69 per hour – a record-setter for Pennsylvania. 2019, however, was a reprieve from the disease.
“Last summer was the mildest we’ve had in 10 years and our flush rates came up 9% from 0.69 to 0.75 flushes per hour,” Williams said. “So it’s very clear when you look back over the almost 20 years since West Nile has been here that flush rates are responding to disease. We’re not going to get an uptick in grouse in any significant way unless we get a break from West Nile for more than one year. What we need is a good 3-5 years of low disease prevalence so that populations can rebound, but we haven’t had a stretch like that since the early-2000s.”
One way to give grouse that break, Williams found, is to create habitat at higher elevations. Even then, that discovery came within the last two years and could be considered a stroke of good luck.
“We have two game lands in the south-central part of the state: One was managed specifically for grouse, it even had the old checkerboard cuts in it – very intensive grouse management. The other game land just to the east of it was up on a ridge top and had no specific grouse management,” Williams said. “In 2018, we lost all the grouse in that lower elevation game land. The place just to the east, which got normal forest management but at a higher elevation, is still holding onto its grouse.”
This evidence was further supported as the PGC team of Williams, Region Biologist Tim Hoppe, and GIS Analyst Bob Blystone worked to create a geographic information system tool aptly named the Grouse Priority Area Siting Tool. This Tool uses information about WNV vectors and where they are most likely to occur as a way to focus grouse habitat work into areas of low disease risk.
“The Tool is brand new, so we’re not at a point yet where we can see immediate results, but what I have done is looked back at our population data on game lands that fit the Grouse Priority Area Siting Tool and compare with areas that fall outside of grouse priority zones,” Williams said. “We created [G-PAST] [to] help guide people to the best places to put habitat and we’ll continue to use grouse monitoring as a way to see if the Tool is working the way we think it should.
“I’ve been able to look back at places we’ve been monitoring for 10 years or more. Some of them are coincidentally high elevation and some are low elevation. I don’t have the data that I could pull together and show a slick graph of it, but we’ve seen over and over that what we predict in G-PAST is happening on the ground. G-PAST gives us a statewide GIS look, specifically what places are safer from disease. Now I’m in the process of figuring out which grouse populations in the state are in need of critical intervention. We can’t do everything everywhere. What I’m prioritizing for this first five years are the edges of the range where we’re losing birds rapidly. Our grouse keep contracting back to the mountains, and the population is shifting north, so I think we’re in danger of losing connectivity with West Virginia and Maryland. I’m prioritizing those [southern ridges] to hold the line, and out in our southeast where we’re losing a lot of our birds. Trying to stop the hemorrhaging – I guess that’s the best way to put it.”
Naturally, habitat work comes down to forest management which in the current world isn’t boding too well. Since the Trump Administration began its trade war with China, the timber and wood products market has fallen which in turn has affected agencies using forest management to create habitat for declining species. According to the American Hardwood Export Council, in October 2019, hardwood export revenue had fallen almost 50% since 2017. It’s not the first time the timber markets have suffered, though, and the PGC has a plan to deal with the wood no one wants.
“It’s difficult to do a harvest if you can’t find a contractor to do it, but internally the budget has increased for forestry in order to get more people on the ground marking timber, and we’re offering more timber out for bid maybe than we ever had, at least any time since the 90s,” she said. “But it’s not all being taken up because the [market] is stagnant. That’s the frustrating part of trying to work with young forest – everybody knows what needs to be done, professional foresters know exactly how to get to the objective, but you have this whole market that’s the tail that wags the dog. And we have no control over that.
“In the game commission, we’ve done for decades what we call a ‘negotiated sale.’ When the importance of the habitat outweighs the value of the wood product, we negotiate with operators. Which is basically: Here’s all this acreage and wood volume and we’ll sell it at a bargain price in order to accomplish the work. We use that when we strictly need to make habitat and [want to] attract an operator. When wildlife needs young forest habitat, you’ve got to have someone willing to bring in the trucks and take out the wood.”
The PGC is harvesting solely on Commission lands using private contractors. Pennsylvania also has the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources which manages state forest lands. But what about the management of private forest lands? The PGC and DCNR can advise private landowners, and each agency employs biologists and service foresters to help landowners develop management plans. The actual harvesting on private lands, naturally, is left to the private sector. Non-governmental organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society can help landowners get grants to set aside part of their land for conservation work or do active forest management.
Although biologists and foresters are encountering problems all the time, there are two success stories in Pennsylvania. The first involves a project in Loyalsock State Forest, the brainchild of Brian Laudermilch, a DCNR forester who has been passionate about restoring grouse habitat since 2015. Five years later, the forester has enlisted a band of student volunteers who have helped harvest 36 acres. In that short time and that small space, the grouse population has tripled.
“Drummers shouldn’t be moving in until Year 5, but they’re already in there and that population is already growing,” Williams said. “It’s just a testament to how badly those birds needed habitat. They’re not even waiting until it’s in prime-age, they’re just piling in because they need it so badly. And they seem to be gaining ground. Even though 2017-18 were horrible years for disease, those birds have increased every year. [The project is] on that edge of the range where grouse have been declining, so it’s really satisfying and amazing to see how those birds are responding.”
This spring, Laudermilch heard seven drummers in the project area.
“In 2015, we followed through on this hunch that disease might be part of the problem. People thought we were crazy because everyone thought it was all about habitat loss. From the very beginning, the idea behind the research program was to figure out a solution. It’s amazing five years later, we have a G-PAST tool to guide people where to work, and we’re seeing the birds respond on the ground in real-time. It’s been a blessing to be part of that process and have it go from a thought to a statewide on-the-ground project. If other states can benefit from that work, that’s amazing.”
Private landowners are conservationists, too
When it comes to private landowners, Williams notes that they – as well as state foresters – can do easy things to make sure West Nile vectors don’t take hold in their neck of the woods.
“It’s really about water management as a way to limit vector populations,” Williams said. “I talk all the time about forest management, but this vector can move into the habitat we create, even at high elevations. Say we go up to 3,000 feet or West Virginia goes up to 4,000 feet and we create habitat. If we’re leaving a lot of ruts, if we leave a mess behind us and those things fill with water, that mosquito will get there. It’s weird because we have so many bird species that need active forest management, and if you’re going to make young forest that means you’re bringing equipment on site. So we need to be careful about our housekeeping, and that’s what private landowners need to do, too.
“On my farm, we’ve got ruts. We’ve been experimenting with these mosquito dunks that you can get at a hardware store. You just toss a dunk in there and it will keep the mosquitos from breeding. The dunks contain a bacteria that kills mosquito larvae but doesn’t harm amphibians and other animals using the water. You need to re-treat it as directed, or the mosquitoes will get ahead of you again. But it’s a good way for a landowner to protect their family and maybe even wildlife on the farm.”
She was quick to note that not all water is bad – amphibians thrive in vernal pools and entire wildlife communities rely on wetlands. But shallow ruts and puddles that do not support amphibians and other predators quickly become a host for WNV vectors as the spring transitions into summer.
Working Across State Lines
Williams and the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources have been working together for a while, considering both states are almost identical in terms of topography and ecological structure.
“They’ve been very interested in what Pennsylvania has done,” she said. “I love sharing our data because the West Virginia DNR couldn’t do what we’ve done – most states don’t have access to the strong West Nile and grouse data that Pennsylvania has. You have to have [both] to put two and two together to make that connection. A lot of states don’t have that capacity. I feel honored that in Pennsylvania we can use our data to understand the issues and other states can learn from us.”
But just because West Virginia doesn’t have as much grouse and mosquito data as Pennsylvania does, that doesn’t mean the DNR can’t help find new avenues to battle West Nile.
“We now have every eastern state with ruffed grouse sampling grouse and looking for antibodies for West Nile Virus. West Virginia’s DNR requested our GIS details so they could begin working on their own G-PAST tool. We’re convening at a meeting of all the grouse states in the East to develop a grouse restoration plan that allows us to work more effectively state-to-state and identify what the information gaps are,” Williams said.
Williams notes that building a strong grouse hunter cooperator program is key to agencies tightening information gaps relating to population monitoring, and the WVDNR is aware of that. How else can it know if conservation efforts are working? The best cooperators are grouse hunters because they spend hours in grouse habitat and many of them have dogs to help search. But if there is a lack of grouse hunters – which there is in some states – agencies have to look for other sources of information. In addition to their Cooperator Survey, West Virginia DNR has a long-running summer brood survey that provides data each year.
“It sounds geeky to talk about data as a step in recovery, but if you don’t have feedback you don’t know if you’re going in the right direction,” Williams said. “I think many agencies are ratcheting up the attention on grouse and that’s important within an agency because that trickles out to the public. You can mobilize a lot of people that way.”
Another step Williams notes is that state agencies need to have a collaborative relationship with National Forests to address any public concerns about timbering. Simply, wildlife agencies need to help make the public aware that multiple species of birds that require young forest are in danger of disappearing.
“This isn’t just a grouse problem, this is a huge problem,” Williams said. “I think there are 30 different species in the Pennsylvania wildlife action plan, probably the West Virginia action plan, too, that are tied to young forest and are declining. That’s the message we have to get out: We’re logical partners with bird watchers and people who care about wood turtles; with native plant enthusiasts and people who want to catch a glimpse of a snowshoe hare. It’s a whole community in trouble, and when you layer West Nile [on top of that] it’s even more critical to jump in and do something. As biologists, we can provide that kind of information to the foresters in the National Forest to speak to these people. Foresters can then focus on the professional forestry and biologists can focus on why that forestry is so important, and get that information out to the public. We can use grouse as the poster child because people know them and love them, but really we’re talking about an entire community. There are so many different species that rely on that habitat. I dare you, defy you, to go out and create an area of young forest and only benefit one species. It just doesn’t work that way.
“The time to get involved in fixing a species is when you still have a lot of them. If you wait until something is listed as a threatened or endangered species, you’re already in the emergency room. You want to do preventative healthcare [rather] than emergency room healthcare.”
To read more
This story is Part 4 in the ongoing series ‘Ghost Drummers’ concerning the disappearance of ruffed grouse in West Virginia. Each story in the series can be found at the links above and the full series will be released as one long-form story once finished. Andrew can be reached on Twitter @ASPellman_DPost