For avid grouse hunters in West Virginia, these are difficult days. Even in a good brood year, the ruffed grouse continues to be a fragile species in the Mountain State and throughout the Appalachian region.
“I have reports this year of people going in during archery season and putting up multiple broods on their way into a tree stand in certain parts of the state,” said DNR Biologist Keith Krantz who oversees grouse research for the agency. “I thought that was pretty encouraging.”
But even encouraging reproduction cannot counter what has become the single biggest obstacle for grouse populations in West Virginia, habitat loss.
“Grouse hunting is on the decline just based on habitat,” said Krantz. “We’re just not cutting as many trees across the state and without that early successional habitat, the grouse just doesn’t do as well and that’s what we’re seeing.”
Gone are the days of vast tracts of land timbered and left to regenerate anew. The new growth becomes the prime living condition for the ruffed grouse. The downturn in the housing market caused a substantial reduction in timber sales across the state. Environmental activism is another difficult obstacle to overcome.
“The Forest Service used to cut many, many millions of board feet a year and they don’t anymore due to the pressure they’ve been put under,” Krantz said. “They still do some timber sales, but where it used to be more than 30-Million board feet, now it’s more like 2-Million and doesn’t get a lot of emphasis.”
The DNR has taken a more active approach to habitat restoration. Several wildlife management areas in the state have been slated for select timber sales. The sales are purely managed to enhance habitat, but even still are merely a drop in the bucket.
“We’re slowly working toward putting more of our areas into a greater percentage of that young frest habitat, but we own a very small chunk of real estate in West Virginia.”
During the 1970’s and early 1980’s grouse hunters enjoyed bountiful hunting in West Virginia. During the decades before, logging and surface mining was at it’s peak. The rebirth of the forest in those areas was alive with grouse. As time marched on, those vast areas slowly transformed from brush covered landscapes into small pole timber, and eventually into mature hardwood forests. Many have already gone well past maturity today and should be thinned again. Krantz isn’t sure those days can ever be recaptured with today’s way of thinking.
“It’s pretty upsetting because there really isn’t a lot that we can do,” he said. “Just wait and hope the timber market picks back up and we can put these smaller, 10 to 12 acre, clear cuts on the ground and get these grouse going again.”
The Appalachian mountains are in the very southern tip of the ruffed grouse range. A finger down the spine of the Appalachians is as far south as the birds will be found. Krantz says even when habitat is perfect, reproduction can be a mixed proposition. Cooperative research reveals a stark difference in the reproductive rate of grouse in the oak/hickory forest and those which range in the northern hardwoods.
“The birds in the Appalachian region, their reproductive rates are much lower than the birds in Michigan and those northern tier states where you have aspen,” Krantz said. “The buds of aspen trees are much more nutritive than what we have for them. These grouse are just getting by where those grouse are flourishing.”
Krantz said the best West Virginia grouse hunters can hope for is a rebound in the housing market and increased timber harvesting. Until that happens it’s unlikely conditions will improve. He says unfortunately, the conditions many seasoned grouse hunters remember from the 70’s and 80’s are probably gone forever.