Gordon Gullion played an integral role in the study of ruffed grouse as well as the history of the Ruffed Grouse Society.
People tend to take scientific discoveries for granted. There are laws of gravity, for example, that govern our world, but we don’t often think about Isaac Newton when we go about our day. When hunting ruffed grouse and scanning for the aspen trees they use as cover and sources of food in portions of their range, we’re probably not thinking of Gordon Gullion, the conservation scientist whose studies and observations enhanced our understanding of ruffed grouse and formally linked the bird’s welfare to aspen trees. Gullion’s research still has a major influence on the forest management practices the Ruffed Grouse Society promotes to benefit the bird and other species. His untimely death at age 67 denied us the authoritative synthesis of his research, but his findings are immortal.
The Soldier Scientist from Eugene
Gordon Wright Gullion was born in Eugene, Oregon on November 16, 1923 to Anna Wright and Omar Gullion, a physician and Missouri transplant. Gullion, who inherited his father’s scientific mind, entered the University of Oregon and studied biology until the cataclysmic interruption of World War II. Just before the blue-eyed, ruddy-complexioned infantry soldier was deployed to France in December 1944, he married his sweetheart near the Army’s training fields of Camp Gruber in Oklahoma. When Corporal Gullion came home from the war, he earned a master’s degree in vertebrate zoology at the University of California, Berkley under the direction of Starker Leopold, son of the famous conservationist, Aldo Leopold.
After graduating from Berkley, Gullion worked for the Nevada Fish and Game Department, researching Sage Grouse and Gambel’s Quail. Sick of the desert, Gullion sought the forests of Minnesota in 1958, beginning his 32-year run in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at the University of Minnesota’s Cloquet Forestry Center where he devoted himself to studying the Ruffed Grouse. In 1972, Gullion said, “When I started, I couldn’t figure out why more information was needed about grouse. I thought everything was known that needed to be known. Now, 13 years later, I’ve got more questions that need answers about grouse than before.”
A Study in Aspen
As early as 1963, Gullion’s research led him to discover the significance of aspen as a food source for grouse. Like many scientific discoveries in the past, Gullion’s link between aspen and grouse happened by chance. ”It was just after sunset. The sky was still bright in the west. You know those pretty winter sunsets we get,” Gullion said. He noticed a number of grouse feasting on the buds of aspens, high up in the leafless branches. ”I watched them with binoculars for 10 or 15 minutes. I realized they were selective in which buds they were taking.”
Returning to the same group of trees the next day, Gullion shot down one of the branches. He found that the grouse were eating the male flower buds of the older aspens. These buds were 20 to 30 percent higher in protein. Though the mature aspen provided this crucial source of food, they are insufficient by themselves to sustain grouse. The birds also require the protection of high stem-density cover which can be provided by a dense stand of young aspen created through forest disturbance, either by human hands or wind or fire.
Gullion concluded that forest management was key for grouse. “We realized we were overprotecting our forests to a point where they become overmature and artificial. Through misconception of what the wilderness of a primeval forest really is, we have protected it out of existence. A primeval forest was constantly disturbed and set back by wind and fire. Now, the chain saw is perhaps the best tool we have in managing a forest for wildlife.”
The discovery that grouse thrive among diversely aged aspen stands created a greater ability to manage habitat for grouse. According to Gullion, “It’s the one game bird that can be managed effectively and maintained with the right forest management.” This had real-world consequences during Gullion’s lifetime. In a 1985 article in the York, Pennsylvania Daily Record, a columnist wrote, “[D]ue to an explosion in grouse knowledge, primarily the result of Gordon Gullion’s aspen/grouse research in Minnesota, which indicated grouse could be managed through selective timber harvesting to produce optimal bird-per-acre populations, many states began lengthening their grouse season and intensifying grouse management programs.”
Mr. Ruffed Grouse Society
Gullion’s research is also a part of the Ruffed Grouse Society’s story. In 1977, the RGS reorganized to incorporate regional societies and vastly increase its membership numbers and income. At the time of the reorganization, the RGS had 1,800 members and an annual income between $50,000 and $60,000. Much of that money supported Gullion’s research. The reorganization also allowed the RGS to hire regional directors and publish reports on forest management based on Gullion’s findings. Gullion also served on the RGS board of directors from 1972 until 1990 when Gullion’s health began to fail because of lung cancer. Samuel Pursglove, the executive director of the RGS in 1990 said of Gullion, “He’s really Mr. Ruffed Grouse Society.”
Living Research of Gordon Gullion
During his lifetime, Gordon Gullion published Grouse of the North Shore, a beautifully written and designed book meant for the average reader. It takes us through the lives of grouse as they experience the four seasons, leaving the reader with a more intimate knowledge of the bird that Gullion dedicated his life to. Grouse of the North Shore is a wonderful addition to the library of a grouse enthusiast, but unfortunately it isn’t the culmination of research that Gullion intended.
Gullion’s office at the University of Minnesota was filled with maps and note cards. He had files and notes for every bird he tracked through the use of radio telemetry. Gullion planned to gather all the data from these cards and his scattered notes and, in retirement, write a book synthesizing his findings. Sadly, cancer overtook him in 1991 before he could finish his life’s work. Fortunately, his notecards were preserved. Beginning in 2017, students began documenting Gullion’s hand-written research found on the approximately 69,000 notecards he kept. Fittingly, the Ruffed Grouse Society has provided funding for the project. Gullion’s research and findings live on through the efforts of the Ruffed Grouse Society and all those who are dedicated to furthering our understanding of ruffed grouse with the hope of sustaining them long into the future.
- Chicago Tribune, December 30, 1990
- York Daily Record, December 28, 1985
- Minneapolis Star Tribune, January 2, 1972 and September 3, 1972
- Minneapolis Star, September 11, 1979 and September 14, 1978
- U.S. Draft Cards, National Archives and Records Administration
- Muskogee County, Oklahoma Marriage Records
- The Auk, Volume 110, Issue 4, 1 October 1993