Ruffed grouse conservation matters right now more than ever before.
“Everybody knows that the autumn landscape in the northwoods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a ruffled grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre. Yet, subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.” – Aldo Leopold
There is nothing like the thunder of a rising grouse. I can recall it clear as day on a deer hunt in my hometown, right on the edge of an abandoned farm. That was over a decade ago. Since then, I have never seen a ruffed grouse in the eastern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire region. The state owns the land now. And while that means it’s protected, it does not mean that it’s managed for young growth habitat.
I’m only in my thirties, but even in my lifetime I have seen the ruffed grouse disappear from many of the landscapes I hunted as a child. I recently had the pleasure to talk with Andy Weik, the Northeast Regional Biologist of the Ruffed Grouse Society. Here are the 5 major points I took from our conversation about ruffed grouse conservation. This is knowledge we need to spread to both hunter and non-hunter alike.
Ruffed grouse, like wild turkey, have not had success at being raised in captivity. Unlike migratory birds such as the American woodcock, ruffed grouse cannot just pick up and move to the next young growth habitat. Which means: as early successional forests disappear, ruffed grouse disappear. We have to act now to stabilize these areas through responsible forestry management.
We need long term plans that allow forests to grow in stages. Ruffed grouse would be able to thrive in an evolving diverse forest. But this takes well planned, ongoing commitments to forestry management.
It’s not as easy as “cutting some trees”
Just cutting down a few trees won’t do the trick. The amount of clear cutting matters. Cutting a half acre here and there does nothing for young growth species and taking out hundreds and hundreds of acres can do real damage.
Ruffed grouse rely on multiple stages of forest growth through their life stages. They don’t just need young growth, they need diversity. And that is exactly what they are lacking right now. Our forests suffer from extremes. It’s either old growth or no forest at all. Without young growth nearby, old growth does not support as many species of wildlife as we would like to imagine.
Many areas, like southern New England, have roughly 2% young growth forest. Yet in order to have a diverse forest that supports young growth species, we need anywhere between 10% to 15%. Sources vary on the precise percentage—but the point is that there needs to be diversity for sufficient ruffed grouse conservation.
Why wasn’t this an issue in the past?
Let me put this simply: we have proactively stopped the forest from helping itself. Take the now extinct Heath hen as an example. When the future of the Heath hen came under threat, people reacted. The first thing they did was protect the breeding grounds on Martha’s Vineyard. Then they began suppressing fires on that landscape to “protect” the Heath hen. What happened? The end of their essential new growth habitat. As Andy Weik put it, “We loved the Heath hen to death.”
When we prevent things from happening like beaver dams—or forest fires—what we are doing is disrupting a natural cycle. Sometimes civilization requires this of us, but it does not require that we harvest timber and perform controlled burnings inconsiderately. Native Americans would intentionally start fires to alter the land. They did so, however, in line with nature’s need for regeneration to maintain a healthy, diverse forest system.
Ruffed grouse is only one of many threatened species.
It’s not just ruffed grouse. Threatened species like the Golden-winged Warbler and New England Cotton Tail are at critical points, too. The list of species is massive and includes a whole line of song birds, reptiles, plants, and mammals. This more than ever demonstrates the importance of this issue on a much grander scale than just the ruffed grouse.
There is hope
But there is hope. The Ruffed Grouse Society continues to help fund projects, research science, advise other organizations in forestry management, and grow the awareness of ruffed grouse and woodcock habitat. The best part is that other organizations like the Audubon Society are taking critical steps along with the Ruffed Grouse Society to plan for a better future for all young growth species.
People are beginning to accept the knowledge of responsible cutting and young growth habitat as a science. We need to maintain this momentum, so we can remember this as the generation that acted on science to help save the future of so many species.
Check out the non-profit the: Ruffed Grouse Society
Project Upland is a film and literary initiative to capture the cultures and traditions of upland bird hunting. We seek to inspire a future generation of upland bird hunters to understand the essence of hunting traditions and the critical cause for conservation.