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Can We Stop the Decline of the Ruffed Grouse?

Can We Stop the Decline of the Ruffed Grouse?

A ruffed grouse sitting in a tree

The future of ruffed grouse and the health of North American forests are at a critical point

An issue has been popping up in news feeds more frequently. It continues to happen in different states, and it’s a very troubling trend. Not that it’s necessarily a new problem – biologists have been warning about it for years. And yet, here we are. What issue are we talking about? The fact that ruffed grouse populations are in decline across much of their range. In this post, we caught up with several biologists with Ruffed Grouse Society to examine the issue and see what we can do about it.

States ‘warning lights’ are blaring for the ruffed grouse

There are a few layers to this discussion. Each state maintains a State Wildlife Action Plan, which identifies species that have low or declining populations as Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN). This is essentially the first “warning light” in terms of species conservation, and it is designed to reduce the need for listing under state or federal mechanisms. As of the 2015 updates, ruffed grouse were listed as a SGCN in eighteen states, many within the birds’ historic wheelhouse (including most of the New England area).

President and CEO of the Ruffed Grouse Society Ben Jones
President and CEO of the Ruffed Grouse Society Ben Jones photographs an active harvest of a regenerating working forest.

In addition, most states have their own systems for state endangered or threatened species. You’ve probably heard by now that ruffed grouse have been proposed for state endangered listing in Indiana. Other states are likely to follow if current trends continue. Although the ruffed grouse is not currently listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973, it may be trending that way. The North American Breeding Bird Survey indicates a long-term population decline since 1966.

Some states have been battling with emergency closures of hunting seasons out of concern for the grouse population. For example, New Jersey closed its 2019 season statewide due to documented population declines. Ohio has also proposed a much shorter 2020 season with a lower daily bag limit.

Why are ruffed grouse populations declining?

Globally, we are facing a biodiversity crisis, and much of it is due to loss of habitat. That’s also the case for ruffed grouse. Increasing urban/agricultural sprawl and declining rates of forest management have resulted in unnaturally single-aged forest with little structural diversity. This leaves wildlife that need diverse forests (including ruffed grouse) in a lurch. There’s a general understanding that ruffed grouse need young forest. This is certainly true. But it’s also true that they use forest patches of many different ages and structural types throughout the year to meet food and cover requirements. A diverse healthy forested landscape is thus important to maintain populations.

A healthy working forest in New Hampshire
Overlooking a healthy, age diverse, active working forest in New Hampshire.

I reached out to Linda Ordiway (RGS Regional Biologist for the Mid-Atlantic, Southern, and Appalachian states) about this and she indicated, “Forest ecosystems are dynamic and continued disturbances across a landscape are necessary to provide the variability .” Sustainable forest management approaches help to create forests with the right composition and age diversity. Timber harvests create good wildlife habitat in addition to the economic upside realized from sale of timber. Unfortunately, Ordiway also noted that there has been a decline in the availability and demand for wood and wood products. If it’s not economical (e.g., because of a decline in the local forest products industry or lack of infrastructure), it’s harder for agencies and private landowners to get the habitat work done.

I also asked Heather Shaw (RGS Regional Biologist for Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana) for input on the issues in her region. She mentioned that in Indiana, this endangered listing will hopefully bring attention to the issue and lead to a pro-active recovery plan and resulting management. Ohio’s grouse population is also experiencing a steep decline very similar to Indiana, according to Shaw.

Without enough high quality habitat, grouse are not as responsive when threats (e.g., diseases, weather events, etc.) occur. This is why populations have declined over the last 25 years, just as urban sprawl has increased and forests have lost natural diversity.

How the Ruffed Grouse Society and partner efforts are pushing back

The Ruffed Grouse Society has taken a strong stance on these issues. According to Shaw, “RGS has emphasized that extirpation of this species is virtually inevitable unless our forests are managed with sufficient intensity across the landscape.” Where data and monitoring indicate it is warranted, RGS has supported season closures and listing ruffed grouse on the state level. But that support comes with a critical caveat that environmental reviews for future projects in these states should favor active forest management. Without that, the threat won’t go away. Additionally, Brent Rudolph (RGS Chief Conservation & Legislative Officer) mentioned that RGS seeks to collaborate on recovery plans for grouse to restore enough habitat and reverse course. He also noted that RGS stays active in the American Wildlife Conservation Partners coalition, advocating for these issues across party lines in Washington, D.C.

Coordination among different parties is necessary to address this issue. Shaw noted that, “various game and non-game conservation organizations all need to understand that managing forests for ruffed grouse is equally beneficial for white-tailed deer, wild turkey, songbirds, etc.”

We are watching this issue unfold already in states like New Jersey, Indiana, and Ohio. The question then becomes how do we stop other states throughout the grouse range from following down the same path. For example, we know what habitat types grouse need throughout the year. How do we shift to create more of these habitats?

Forestry management for sustainable forest biodiversity and health

One of the biggest obstacles is public perception and misconceptions about forest management. Managing forests by sustainably cutting trees is not deforestation. When trees are harvested as part of a sustainable forest management plan, new trees spring up and that young forest grows on. Ben Jones, CEO of the Ruffed Grouse Society points out, “trees are a renewable resource and sound management leads to improved habitat and wood products. Those products in turn support conservation work and local economies. This is the true definition of conservation – protection through wise use – and it is the only way we will maintain healthy forest wildlife. We need to make sure people understand that connection.”

Volunteers from Cincinnati, Ohio Ruffed Grouse Society chapter helping the Division of Wildlife create habitat.
Volunteers from Cincinnati, Ohio, Ruffed Grouse Society chapter helping the Division of Wildlife create habitat during a work day.

Many flora and fauna thrive in young, regenerating forests. Without active management to provide that opportunity, habitat will continue to degrade and species will decline to the point of state and even federal listings. Ordiway noted that this situation will be “the result of a conscious decision not to manage …Who will accept accountability for that decision?”

So what can you do? Become an advocate for healthy and continuous forest management, and explain those benefits to others. Reach out to your legislators and tell them you support active forest management through your state or federal agencies. The Ruffed Grouse Society periodically lets you know when important policy decisions are being made, so stay educated and provide comments on new plans and proposed projects. And if you don’t already do so, support any local timber harvesting or forest product industries as much as you can. For example, roughly 84% of forestlands in Ohio and Indiana are in private ownership – if more landowners allow timber harvests on their properties, the potential habitat benefit could be meaningful. The million-dollar question is whether grouse populations will rebound with those efforts. But we can already see the answer if we choose to do nothing.

View Comments (26)
  • It’s crazy to me to think of these grouse disappearing. Hopefully we can get some more people involved and we can maintain habitat.

  • I enjoy hunting ruffed grouse. It’s great! Habitat is clearly a big driver of ruffed grouse populations. Here’s food for thought. Grouse populations that hunters got used to over the last many decades are an accident of past land management decisions. Those decisions were driven by a variety of factors, but creating grouse habitat was rarely a factor that drove management at a large scale. Good grouse habitat was an accidental byproduct of things like industrial forest management, natural reforestation after farm abandonment and reforestation after grazing cattle woodlands mostly ceased. Forest ownership and attitudes toward forest management are changing, and so an accidental byproduct of those changes is less grouse habitat. Prior to European settlement, many northern forests are estimated to have less than 10% young forest. There were grouse in pre-settlement forests, but probably not at high levels over large areas. Declining grouse numbers may seem like a crisis to those of us who like to hunt them, but we’re used to artificially high populations. Hunters may be well served to readjust their conception of acceptable grouse numbers in the absence of landscape level management that accidentally creates good grouse habitat.

    • I agree with you to a point but Indigenous people have cleared the land, planted it, left it to re-grow a forest so we can guess that populations of grouse increased and decreased in a manner similar to what we see today. Forest fire and other natural disaster can also clear forests. Since we want as many grouse as possible to hunt, I don’t see a problem with efforts to improve habitat so we can optimize our time afield.

    • Tom
      I am 73 years old and have been hunting grouse in CT since I was 16 years old. Here in North Western CT in the 70’s it wasn’t uncommon to have 20 flushes a day; granted most you never got a shot at. Fast forward to the past 25 years . I have watched a steady decline to the point that I refused to shoot any if I flushed them out of sympathy. in the past 5 years I have not flushed a single bird. All our forests are big hardwood with the swamps and fields turned to estates with million dollar home for rich NYers. Your analysis is spot on. Unfortunate for CT I think it’s too late.
      Tom Vitagliano

  • I assume that the wildlife biologists are studying the relationship (impact) of the dramatic — and relatively rapid — rise (recovery) in wild turkey population and the noted decline in grouse numbers. I have seen the change that the turkeys appear to have caused in the New England covers/habitats over recent years. Woodcock numbers seem to be adversely affected, too.

    • you sir are more than correct. The grouse decline is most likely multi faceted but I will guarantee you the the turkeys are a major factor, but all the RGS can talk about is timber harvest. Where i live we have intensively aspen logged for nearly 40 years, more so called great habitat young aspen on the landscape than anytime in recent history, yet the grouse numbers are ridiculously low. Almost non existent and turkeys everywhere including in the young aspen. No doubt predators, west nile , access etc have a roll but the RGS need to wake up and acknowledge the obvious and get off this silly notion that all you have to do is log more and magically grouse will appear..SO sick and tired of this and all they will do is shun guys like you and me and call us names, but I spent my career in the forests and know what I see….

  • I own 50 acres of ideal grouse habitat in NW PA. I have timbered 3 times in last 15 years, and all of the surrounding properties have been timbered in the last 4-5 years. Cover is thick with blackberry, slash, wild rose, red sumac, witch hazel, aspen. There were plenty of grouse here in 1986 before the timbering got started. There are thousands of acres of this ideal timbered habitat, but the grouse are gone!
    Wake up RGS! We are already timbering, but we have no grouse to show for the effort.
    What is being done to stop West Nile Virus? How about studying the effects of various predators on grouse populations?

    • Being a PA resident,I agree.South west Pa is the same.25 years ago Hunting with a foot of snow on the ground 2 dogs and friends. 30 flushes in 2 1/2 hours is only ever going to be a fond memory.

      • I just want RGS experts to understand that habit has been improved while we still had grouse, and according to their recommendations these properties should have a thriving and expanding grouse population; but the grouse have gone. With Beech bark disease and emerald ash borer killing thousands of trees, the timbering has left a forest that is basically a clear cut in many areas. The blackberry is so high and thick, you come out bloody if you go through it. There are two woodland streams with witch hazel and aspen, wild apple, and hemlocks scattered throughout. The problem in all of western PA is not lack of timbering. What can the RGS offer us, other than timbering rationale? Is it West Nile Virus? Is it more coyotes?, more raccoons?, fishers?, fox? Something out there is killing adults and/or eating eggs. We need to identify the real source of elimination of this great bird, and not waste any more time or money on timbering recommendation.

        • Bill you are absolutely right on target. The thing that folks miss is that grouse are not the only declining species. We have a population of predators, including hunting, that exceeds prey species’ reproductive abilities. It is as simple as that. Excellent habitat only leads to higher population of predators. Thus one finds few grouse there. Until we develop the political will to try to control predators there is little long term hope for grouse.

  • The only grouse I’ve heard the last 10 years, are those that flush 80 yards ahead. Survival of the fittest for all ground-nesting birds and mammals with coyotes around. And New York, in it’s wisdom, closes coyote season the end of March through October to give them time to BREED.

  • Grouse have seen significant declines in northwest PA . even where there are diverse forest types and management. Most signs point toward disease.

  • Food for thought. I’ve been hunting and guiding hunters for grouse for 20+ years now in Price county Wis. Our county is one of the premier places to grouse hunt in the world! I have witnessed a dramatic decrease in our populations and it’s not due to habitat loss or logging pratices. My theory.
    Lack of trappers trapping. In the past 6 months I have killed 18 skunks on our 400 acres and there are more to kill! Coon…I lost count. How many nests can survive with that many egg eating predators roaming around? You want to improve your grouse populations around your house, start trapping!

    • I agree, I am surrounded by excellent habitat in Oneida County WI. Populations of Coons, skunks, coyotes, wolves, bobcat, and even bears are high. They all eat and destroy eggs and nests, I have seen it on my own property with grouse and duck nests. Add to that the other diseases, and it makes it near impossible to grow a grouse to maturity.

  • Ryan – I agree with your article. I also learned that Pennsylvania’s grouse population is like Indiana’s. Some in PA indicated many grouse habitats were in low, wet areas conducive to bird flu – type disease…aiding in the grouse decline. Say you?

  • Don’t blame coyotes. Don’t blame loggers. The loss of habitat is because of the removal of fire from the woods. Without fire this bird has difficulty finding food on the forest floor. Fire is the BEST tool in our toolbox, but because of litigation it is not used. I love the woods. I’ve been working in the forests for 37 years. The problem comes when some urbanite drives out to the county and calls 911 when they see fire or smells smoke. Go back to the city.

  • As far as I know, Minnesota and Pennsylvania are the only states currently, conducting organized research on population dynamics, habitat, WNV, etc? Perhaps, it’s time for other New England States and the upper Midwest states to do the same? Grouse have always lived in predator rich environments, if you look at Bump work back in the 50’s,-a time of grouse range expansion and high densities, a whole suite predators used grouse. New GPS technology renders grouse studies incredibly accurate and intricate. let’s update our ecological understanding of this resource.

  • No one will actually name the main problem with grouse decline. Sure predators, habitat, being causes, but the introduction of turkey along with DNR being able to charge for turkey tags has been a major factor in the decline.

    In 1985 I did a job at Raccoon State Park in SW Pa. I thought I would do some scouting and I found zero grouse in about total of 12 hrs over multiple days. In the same year 25 miles to the west in Oh on my property I could get up 4 to 6 birds an hour, habitat and the forest being the same only difference being dnr had not yet got turkey fever. Ohio had stocked turkey in northern Jefferson Cty a few years earlier, needless to say 1990 was about the last year we had any turkeys to speak of. I still took the dog out on occasion,but never shot at any birds just didn’t want to shoot the last one.

    I have a sporting clay range and I am out in the woods daily. The last grouse seen or heard was about 4 years ago.

    DNR told us turkey wouldn’t hurt grouse, however they think we need coyote and rattlesnakes. A bunch of damned tree huggers and most of them don’t care about grouse and hunting.

    A timber cutter that worked at my place told me that if they got around an area that was managed by the grouse was a sure sign there would be no grouse.

    We have an uphill battle with the turkey hunters, the wild turkey soc, the DNR, and developers.

    Now that I have peed everybody off! I will say shoot sporting clay! Next best thing. No dogs however.

  • Thanks for the interest. Currently, there’s no data supporting the hypothesis that turkeys are the cause and effect to the grouse decline. In fact, review of the literature related to turkey food habit studies, shows no documented cases where a grouse Has appeared in any turkey digestive tract-honest! If you find some hard data, from a accredited, scientific study, please share with us.

  • This is the stuff that people get so sick and tired of hearing.. People who live in the real world and don’t sit in an office making hypothesis, know that 100% of the time where the turkeys are the grouse are not .. no turkeys still grouse.. wake up man…

  • I believe that it’s just too coincidental the way that grouse numbers began to decline along side the rise in wild turkey populations in many regions. I expect that the wild turkeys DO compete with grouse to some degree for food AND I suspect that turkeys are a much hardier bird when it comes to disease tolerance so they are likely to be hosts that readily play a significant role in helping to spread bird diseases that grouse are less tolerant of. A test for this notion would be to significantly reduce a wild turkey population in a specific region that has good grouse habitat and see what happens comparatively over a period of 5 or 6 years. To the best of my knowledge no one is doing this.

  • I don’t believe I said anything about turkey eating grouse, they compete. Scientists are who got us in this situation, also I don’t think Appalachia’s grouse had the same cycles as northern grouse. I only hunted them for 50 years and paid attention to what the professionals said and some things made sense others didn’t.

  • I once came upon a hen grouse with chicks. I didn’t even see them until the hen began running away from me acting like she had a broken wing or something. Then all of a sudden about it appeared as though a 12″ circle of leaves on the ground began to move then all of a sudden I realized it was a clutch of little grouse chicks that were about the size of my thumb. Anyone who’s seen the forest floor after a good sized flock of turkeys has worked through the area would understand that when such a flock of turkeys should disturb a hen grouse like I did ALL of those chicks would have been eaten in a heartbeat.

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