Recapping the fun and fervor of the Upland Bird Hunt hosted annually in the Pennsylvania Wilds.
Upland hunting is a lifestyle. The conscious uplander is part hunter, conservationist, art lover, biologist, chef and storyteller. When people gather at the Ruffed Grouse Society’s Upland Bird Hunt (UBH) in the Pennsylvania Wilds, they celebrate that lifestyle, contribute to scientific research, and have a positive impact on the local community.
The UBH in Pennsylvania is partly modeled after the RGS’s annual National Grouse and Woodcock Hunt, which first occurred in 1982. In 2008, Lisa Rossi, the RGS regional director for Western PA, and Mary Hosmer, along with her fellow RGS UBH Chapter members, decided that Pennsylvania’s Elk County needed its own annual hunt to attract both new and experienced hunters. Despite the pandemic that is still roiling the country, the chapter took many careful, proper precautions to successfully hold its 12th annual event in November, which was mostly held outdoors.
The Upland Lifestyle
Mary Hosmer grew up hunting grouse in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. A job opportunity plucked her from the UP and parachuted her near the Allegheny Mountains. Grateful that her new home was still in grouse territory, Mary got involved in the local RGS chapter and used her deft social media touch to enhance the chapter’s public communications and promote the upland lifestyle and the UBH that celebrates it. Mary described the upland lifestyle as “being out in the environment where wild critters actually live, the sense of fellowship in the company of other hunters, and watching excellent dog-work.” She spoke proudly of witnessing the camaraderie exhibited among people wearing khaki and blaze orange at the UBH.
The mention of blaze orange clothing speaks to an additional, central feature of the upland lifestyle. There’s an aesthetic to this avocation that’s layered atop the joy of nature. Upland hunting has its own sense of fashion, which is more practical than preening, but undeniable. Is there an upland hunter that wouldn’t gladly accept a gift card to Orvis or Filson for a sleek, new field coat, or happily debate about which materials best suit a hunting boot? More than just attire, there is an artistic sensibility in the uplander’s mind. Which upland hunter would refuse a Lou Pasqua painting of their dog, for example, or a Tim Flanigan photo of a ruffed grouse for their wall?
This artistic sensibility is a focal point of the UBH. In 2020, the UBH raffle prize was a Fox Sterlingworth 16-gauge side-by-side shotgun made in 1930. Shotguns are a functional, necessary component of the uplander’s equipment. But does any hunter besides the uplander so lovingly marvel at the artistry of a double-barreled shotgun, or get as excited over the vintage of an American side-by-side? The handsome 16-gauge attracted enough people to raise over $12,000 for the RGS.
In further acknowledgement of art’s importance to the upland aesthetic, the UBH features a local artist every year. This year’s event introduced high schooler Zane Malogrino of Shinglehouse, PA, a student at the Oswayo Valley School District whose work includes laser-engraved wooden pieces.
An Upland Bird Hunt Impacting the Community
Spotlighting a local artist does more than promote the upland aesthetic; it’s an example of the UBH’s positive impact on the community. As Mary put it, “We get all the things we need for the Upland Bird Hunt from local businesses.” From lunches and snacks at nearby shops to lodging at the Red Fern Banquet and Conference Center in Kersey, PA, there are economic ripple effects that benefit Elk County’s rural communities.
Elk County doesn’t just profit from the RGS and UBH participants, it also gives back. Straub Brewery has produced American lagers in St. Marys, PA since 1872. Vince Assetta, the General Manager and Head Brewer of Straub Brewery, volunteered to be a huntsman at the UBH. Huntsmen like Vince sacrifice four days of their year to scout for locations and escort UBH participants through Elk County’s public land. The UBH attracts new hunters and out-of-state hunters who are typically unfamiliar with the territory. Huntsmen ensure that the participants have a safe, smooth and authentic experience. Three new hunters at the 2020 UBH were able to bag their first grouse. Without the volunteer work of the huntsmen who are intimately familiar with the landscape, that might not have been possible. The UBH huntsmen are a remarkable example of the spirit of volunteerism that fuels the event.
Beer and Science
In addition to volunteering as a huntsman, Vince Assetta donated Straub beer for the UBH bird tent. The bird tent is a descendant of Gordon Gullion‘s idea for the National Grouse and Woodcock Hunt (NGWH) in Minnesota. According to the RGS, Gullion “immediately recognized the scientific potential of the NGWH…Gullion understood that because it is conducted in the same locale, at the same time each year and using the same methods, it provides an outstanding opportunity to study the annual variation of the local ruffed grouse population.”
The same methodology applies to the UBH in Pennsylvania. Hunters stop at the bird tent to recount the day’s events and have a swig of Straub. They provide research samples, like the bird’s feathers and blood, to the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC). According to Lisa Williams, a ruffed grouse biologist for the PGC, “Since 2014, more than 40 birds have been intensively sampled in this way.”
Williams presents updates on her research and findings to the UBH participants every year at the Red Fern. This year’s event saw a flush rate of 1.091 per hour, and the hunters were able to give multiple samples to the PGC.
Though 2020’s test results won’t be available until next autumn, research from past events led Williams to discover that “West Nile Virus antibodies were detected in nearly 40 percent of all grouse sampled at the UBH; the first indication that birds in high-quality and highly-abundant habitat can survive infection.” Williams added, “This finding has been a call to action in grouse management, proving once again that creating high-quality habitat at landscape scale is key to ruffed grouse recovery.”
“Any chapter can do this.”
Mary Hosmer said that without Lisa Rossi and RGS, the UBH wouldn’t be possible. She called Lisa the organizational “wizard” who coordinates the event.
But according to Lisa, “Any chapter can do this. The core of this event is the strength of the committee behind it.”
Much like the RGS as a whole, positive results are dependent on the energy that members put into it. The UBH raises funds for the RGS, injects money into the community’s economy, provides a venue for hunter camaraderie and showcases the upland lifestyle to new hunters. Nobody said fundraising can’t be fun.