A new voice in the grouse woods: Linda Ordiway joins WVDNR as small game biologist

It’s been a while since the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources has had a specific biologist whose main focus is on upland birds, but that time is over. Mountain State bird hunters can welcome Dr. Linda Ordiway.

Ordiway, born and raised in Bradford, Pa., has always had a keen interest in ruffed grouse. As a child, she recollected trips through the Allegheny National Forest with her mother, now a stronghold for the declining Appalachian birds. After finishing her undergraduate degree in secondary education,  she then completed her Master’s degree at Marshall University, noting that if work wasn’t available back home in northern Pennsylvania that she would have loved to work in West Virginia.

“Where I was born and raised was right near the Allegheny National Forest, not many state lands,” Ordiway said. “I always saw as a kid all these trucks, and thought, ‘How do people get a job there and do that kind of work?’ When I was looking for undergrad I didn’t get a lot of guidance toward that so I thought, ‘Heck I’ll teach biology,  chemistry and ecology at the high school level and have my summers off and run around the forests then.’

“I taught for a year and started thinking about grad school. At that time Dr. Tom Pauley, who everyone in West Virginia knows as the salamander guy, and I [became friends]. I called him up and told him that I wanted to go to grad school, and that’s when I was exposed to that there were undergraduate courses that graduate students were taking that taught you the natural history of it all. So although my degree from Marshall is biology, it’s a very strong natural history education.”

Linda Ordiway

Once finishing her degree in Huntington and fieldwork alongside Pauley in Pennsylvania, Ordiway began working in the Allegheny National Forest —  finally, her question from childhood had been answered. But as a wildlife technician in the research lab, Ordiway began diving into silviculture.

“There was a forester there who was very frank. He’d look at us on the wildlife end and say, ‘You guys tell me what you want it to look like, and I can write you a prescription to do that,’ ” Ordiway recalled. “All this experience I gained, I continued doing bird work with the Allegheny National Forest for almost 14 years.  Those folks there influenced me that if I wanted to make a difference in wildlife that I had to understand the forestry side of it.”

After weighing her options on where to continue her education, she landed at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, NY, where she finished with a degree in silviculture. Shortly after that, she took a job with the Ruffed Grouse Society as a regional biologist covering nine northeastern states. It was a perfect fit.

Then in March, between a combination of COVID-19 shutting down in-person fundraising efforts and a switch to a new model, Ordiway’s role with RGS was eliminated. The previous model used monies in  State Drummer Funds — raised through fundraising events,  grants and other donations — for projects until those monies were depleted, effectively restarting the process. The new model, according to the RGS website, will bank on timber harvests that provide monies for field staffing and conservation projects. Then, the organization says, those funds can be used for additional habitat work, acquiring and protecting land and more.

Still, it didn’t take long for Ordiway’s experience to lead her to the WVDNR job.  

“In this position with the DNR, my focus is wearing a forester’s and silviculturist’s hat more than a wildlife manager’s hat,” she said.

Hitting the ground running

With RGS, Ordiway’s work zone included West Virginia, a large reason she has been readily accepted by Mountain State hunters. Her experience in the hills of West Virginia and with grouse hunters goes back years to when the last grouse-specific biologist, Bill Igo, was working with the WVDNR and the Appalachian Cooperative Grouse Research Project. Since Igo left the WVDNR, however, grouse have been lumped into a larger job description which hasn’t given them the full attention they needed — not because they aren’t worth it, but because the biologist’s plate is simply too full.

 “There’s always been someone who’s focused on grouse,” Ordiway said. “Mike Peters has more of a focus and his comfort zone is waterfowl management, so he had waterfowl, squirrels, grouse, turkey and he was loaded up like I was with RGS. It’s hard to focus on any one of those, and you’re going to focus on where your comfort zone is.”

Less than a month in, Ordiway is already hitting the ground running. Just as the Pennsylvania Game Commission developed its Grouse Priority Area Siting Tool, Ordiway is making using a similar tool as one of her highest priorities to identify prime habitat. Luckily, she doesn’t have to start from the ground up, as the WVDNR has been working with the PGC to get the framework built. It’s through this that the interaction between district biologists, land managers and the Division of Forestry will foster a successful program.

“Getting those priority areas are going to be based on a lot of landscape factors and information that’s already collected. It’s not a model, it’s a tool because we’re taking real-world information and combining that with and utilizing user input. Input is going to be needed from the land managers, [too], to identify things for the best opportunity given some of the environmental factors we can’t control on the landscape. The reality is if it doesn’t have any impact, positive or negative, on grouse populations we know we’re doing good work. It’s going to benefit a whole suite of different songbirds, mammals, pollinators and invertebrates. What we’re going to be recommending isn’t going to be wrong for forest health.”

While creating habitat seems like an easy thing to do from an outsider’s perspective, it’s not. Many factors play into the decline of ruffed grouse in the eastern part of the United States: West Nile Virus, climate change and, most important, habitat loss. West Virginia specifically is about 80% mature hardwood forest, and while those other factors play a large role in the hard-hit bird populations, creating habitat is the first step.

“There’s been a change in land-use,” Ordiway said. “And we can’t not look at climate change. It’s hard to manage for climate change [and] disease. What we can manage for is habitat. We need to look at areas that are the lowest risk for effects of climate change, some of the diseases — particularly West Nile Virus — and the greatest opportunity to expand current grouse populations.”

A major part of habitat loss is segmented land. While one would think 50 acres of a “farmer’s wood lot” on the back of a series of pastures is good enough to sustain birds, the truth is that is isn’t.

“Grouse are a big-woods bird,” Ordiway said. “When you look at Pennsylvania, where the majority of the strongest grouse population [is], the grouse are in the northern and northeastern part of the state where the [human] population is low. They need the big woods, but within the big woods, they need these complexes for cover, a place to raise their young and a place to nest. You can’t put all that within 50 acres and expect to have a whole bunch of grouse. You need that within maybe a couple thousand acres of forest land.”

Another major factor that plays into successful future grouse populations is that user input and interest Ordiway mentioned. It’s no secret that West Virginia’s grouse hunter reporting cooperative has been lacking in recent years, but Ordiway believes that the more attention that’s put on the issues surrounding the birds the better chance interest in the cooperative has to recover as well.

“It has to become not just an interagency issue, it needs to become a general awareness to the public,” she said. “Awareness breeds advocacy. We need those folks. Citizen science is a huge push right now, so we need those people to provide us information so we have a starting point.”

To bring all this together, Ordiway will need to ground proof everything she laid out. That means talking to land managers with the DNR, take their information to dedicated and knowledgeable hunters and then finally come out with a product.

“I’m not going to come out with a product and say, ‘Alright, everyone has to use this,’ ” she said. “We need that input on what’s working and what’s not working, so there’s going to be a lot of input that I’m going to rely on from people that know their areas. I know what that feeling would be like if someone did that from where I’m from without public input. There might be areas that come out as not being the best place to put your resources that have birds, so that’s where local knowledge comes into play.”

Bobwhites need love, too

Before Ordiway joined the WVDNR, the agency took the first steps of a five-year project to restore Bobwhite quail in the Mountain State. Released in March in the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area, the 48 quail faced initial hiccups – predation, mostly – but after 40 years the bobwhite’s song fills the air of the state once more. 

But what makes Tomblin so special? Part of it is the fact that it’s the largest WMA in the state, a wide expanse of public land that reaches more than 25,000 acres. It’s also been managed for the reintroduction of elk, so with work already done to create better habitat the quail have fit in nicely. 

“I haven’t had a chance to get down, but they have some work scheduled,” Ordiway said. “But I’ll get down there the second week of August to see what makes Tomblin the ideal place for quail. I cant’t make my personal assessment until I get on the ground.”

Quail in West Virginia were wiped out long before grouse populations began declining, as people point to the brutal winters of 1977, 1978 and 1979, as the final blow. Ordiway doesn’t disagree with this entirely, but she notes that there must have been other factors at play, like habitat loss. 

“They were hanging on [before those bad winters] but it was also probably loss of habitat and changes in farming practices,” she said. “They were on their way, and those winters just moved the problem along.”

While the population isn’t at self-sustaining levels yet, nor will they be for at least a few years, it’s a nice addition to the state. It’s something Ordiway looks forward to working on, but for now grouse is the first move. 

“I think I’ve built a pretty good relationship with the grouse hunters in the area. I’m anxious to get those folks involved as much as we can and as much as they want to be,” she said. 

The main thing Ordiway hopes to show those interested in grouse restoration is that she and the WVDNR are using sound science to accomplish its goals.

“Grouse habitat doesn’t have to be created through a clear cut. It’s created through sound silviculture,” she said. “Sometimes sound silviculture says we need to go through stand initiation which means a clear cut to get everything started again, sometimes it’s prescribed fire.  Food to me seems to be one of the limiting factors; food all year round. If your understory is full of striped maple that may be wonderful looking structure, but that’s all that’s providing.”

Although grouse restoration in the state has been ramping up for the last few years, it’s clear that Ordiway’s hiring is going to add another level to protecting the birds many hunters hold so dear. If one thing is certain, the upland hunting culture in the Mountain State won’t die out with Ordiway taking the lead.

To read more

This story is part 5 in an ongoing series concerning the disappearance of ruffed grouse in West Virginia. Each story so far in the series can be found above and the full series will be released as one, long-form story once finished. Andrew can be reached on Twitter @andrewspellman_