PRESIDENT’S MESSAGE – Stay Focused on Habitat

RGS Mag Pres Msg Fall 2017

When I hunt grouse and woodcock next fall, I want to better clear my mind of all things occupying my thoughts . . .  I want to stay focused on what I’m doing . . . I want to stay focused on hunting, and when I do, I pick up little cues from the surrounding habitat, I pay closer attention to the dog work, I react to flushes better and shoot straighter, and I’m quite sure you’ve made a similar observation. Staying focused helps us enjoy all the hunt has to offer and gives us a much more fulfilling and satisfying hunting experience regardless of whether we bring back any birds at the end of the day.

With our busy lives, we become more easily distracted, and it takes real discipline to maintain focus on what we’re doing. My buddy from Texas describes the task of staying focused this way:

“It says easy, but does hard!”

Similarly, we must maintain our focus to carry out our critical RGS/AWS mission, which is to create healthy forest habitat for ruffed grouse, American woodcock and other forest wildlife. During the past few years, much attention has been paid to the impact of West Nile Virus (WNV) on ruffed grouse populations. WNV is an arbovirus transmitted by mosquitoes and was first detected in North America in 1999 (in New York). Human and wildlife infections have been reported in all contiguous 48 states. Clearly, we need to understand how this disease mechanism affects the birds we champion.

Grouse 2

Photo by James Boburka

The Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) is working to better understand the impact of WNV on ruffed grouse populations in a study started in 2015, and RGS/AWS has been, and continues to be, a partner in this effort. PGC, with RGS/AWS support, sampled hunter-harvested grouse in the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 seasons.

WNV does not apply annual and steady pressure on grouse populations throughout their range, as risk to grouse fluctuates over time.  In Pennsylvania, dramatic WNV peaks occurred from 2001 to 2004 and again from 2012 to 2014. WNV peaks are triggered by weather conditions, and the timing of peaks will vary in other states, regions and time periods. Pennsylvania’s population monitoring indicates that regions with high-quality and abundant habitat show a strong grouse population recovery between WNV peaks, and flush rate data from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan appears to support this connection.

These preliminary findings seem to make sense and reaffirm the crucial role habitat plays in bird health, disease resistance and population resilience. So what should we take away from all this? We, as hunters, should be disappointed that our Pennsylvania grouse season was cut short as PGC temporarily shortened the 2017-2018 season based on the effect of WNV. We should be even more disappointed because the lack of high-quality and abundant young forest habitat made grouse vulnerable to disease in many parts of Pennsylvania in the first place (where the ruffed grouse is the state bird!). In 2011, the PGC adopted a Ruffed Grouse Management Plan and, to their credit, some of it was implemented, however, given the grouse population’s response to WNV, partial implementation was not adequate. We must disrupt this status quo – the very same thing may happen all over again whenever the next disease or threat arises if we don’t stay focused on the bottom line now . . . young forest habitat.

Photo by Matt Soberg

Photo by Matt Soberg

We need to challenge our public land managers to stay focused on implementing their grouse and woodcock management plans, which call for scientifically sound active forest management that benefits many species of forest wildlife. Having a plan and failing to implement it is worse than not even having a plan at all.

A primary challenge faced by natural resource professionals today is to enhance the understanding of an increasingly nature-deficient public of the critical role played by disturbance in the conservation of wildlife.  The public must be helped to better understand the very real consequences to wildlife from decisions to NOT impart a particular habitat management action on a particular landscape.  The public must be helped to better understand that the long-term implications of inaction must be given equal consideration in decision-making processes to the potential short-term implications of action. The failure to compel this enhanced understanding will seriously compromise efforts to conserve game and nongame wildlife associated with habitats sustained only through periodic disturbance.

As the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion be enlightened accordingly.

— Inscription on the dome of the Missouri State Capitol Building.

High-quality and abundant habitat is where RGS/AWS will maintain our focus. We will stay focused on working with and educating landowners, government agencies and the public of the necessity to create this critical healthy forest habitat through scientific forest management. Similar to human populations, bird populations will be more resilient to threats from diseases when they are strong, healthy and safe. Healthy forests produce abundant wildlife that enable hunters to enjoy our cherished sporting traditions this season and many seasons to come.

For more information on Ruffed Grouse Society programs, visit

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