Earlier this spring, the Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society determined at a strategic planning meeting that public resistance to scientifically sound habitat management practices was one of the top three significant and long-term impediments to the future of healthy forest habitat benefiting not only ruffed grouse and American woodcock but a wide array of forest wildlife.
Every so often we are given a clear illustration of how the public can be misled on forest management and become resistant to habitat improvements. A perfect example filled with inaccurate information and is consequently hampering efforts by foresters and wildlife biologists to manage for the full array of forest wildlife is the recently published article, The Rise and Fall of the Ruffed Grouse and Associated Myths.
This article provides inaccurate, unsubstantiated and misleading information about the ruffed grouse population decline in Indiana. Ruffed grouse in Indiana are threatened with extirpation and hunting has been suspended. The formerly robust population of ruffed grouse in the state has been reduced roughly 98% in the past 25 years. Drumming surveys have found zero displaying males the past four years (see graph below). Efforts to recover a sustainable population are under threat from legislation being advanced by special interest groups aiming to eliminate sustainable forest management, herbicide use to control invasive species, and the ability to conduct prescribed fire on large swaths of public land despite the fact that roughly 46% of publicly owned forested land is already closed to active forest management.
We chose to briefly respond via social media and were joined by the professional and thoughtful responses from members of the Indiana RGS chapter. The full RGS and AWS response is as follows:
Thank you for bringing attention to the plight of ruffed grouse and, by association, other young forest species in Indiana. Ruffed grouse were once very common in Indiana but are a recent addition to the State’s list of Endangered and Special Concern Species. The Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society have a mission of Healthy Forests, Abundant Wildlife, and Sporting Traditions. We strongly support science-based sustainable forest management that promotes all forest ages classes. In order to sustain the full array of forest wildlife, we need to sustain the full array of forest wildlife habitats, young, old, and all ages in between. We are committed to maintaining habitat for ruffed grouse, American woodcock and wildlife that require young forests. To that end we employ 6 full-time wildlife biologists with advanced degrees (24% of our entire staff) who specialize in the study and restoration of young forest habitat and the suite of wildlife that depend on it.
Data collected by the U.S. Geological Survey North American Breeding Bird Survey from 1966 until 2013 across private and public lands in Indiana help paint the picture. In Indiana, mature forest bird species are faring considerably better than young forest species which are dependent on disturbance, such as even-aged timber management, to create maximum sunlight conditions on the forest floor resulting in the natural regeneration of thick high stem density habitat (not necessarily edge habitat). Here are the data:
Woodland (Mature forest) breeding species in Indiana:
Species with significant positive trend estimates 38%
Species with significant negative trend estimates 16%
Successional or scrub (Young forest) species in Indiana:
Species with significant positive trend estimates 11%
Species with significant negative trend estimates 42%
The American woodcock is another young forest dependent bird. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service woodcock singing-ground counts for Indiana in 2015 surveyed 18 routes and found a 6.78% decrease in the number of singing males as compared to 2014. This number is worse than the overall annual decrease of 4.19% since 1968. This is by far the highest annual rate of decline of any state in the American Woodcock Central Management Region (second is Ohio with a 1.25% annual decline).
The preponderance of data and research indicate that the primary driver for the decline of young forest wildlife species in Indiana is the aging of Indiana’s forests due to lack of disturbance and even-aged forest management. Data for public and private land from the U.S. Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis National Program show that 0-19 year old forest stands have declined from 874,259 acres in 1986 to only 252,488 acres in 2013. During that same period the amount of forested land in the state actually increased from roughly 4.4 million acres to 4.9 million acres and forest stands 100 years or older increased from 214,080 acres to 326,793 acres.
The current SFI (Sustainable Forestry Initiative) and FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) third party certified management of Indiana’s State Forests is helping shift the balance of forest age classes back to where they need to be to support young forest wildlife. An increase in even-aged forest management on the Hoosier National Forest and private lands will be required to complete this work and begin to restore the ruffed grouse population in Indiana as well as those of other young forest wildlife. Decades of hands-off management have led to the current unbalanced age class conditions of Indiana forests. Since harvest rates were at or near zero for an extended period of time young forest species will require a sustained period of even-aged management across ownerships and the forested landscape at a rate even higher than what is currently being practiced. We hope the management efforts needed will be implemented at the scale required for ruffed grouse and other wildlife to benefit. This will take time as the current habitat is in very poor shape, grouse do not begin extensively utilizing stands until roughly 10 years post-harvest, and the fragmented remnant populations are in isolated pockets of suitable habitat making repopulation more difficult and exposing female grouse expanding their territories through open understory mature woodlands to higher predation by avian predators (by far the main predators of ruffed grouse).
In regards to this quote from the earlier post, “Several other factors that have likely contributed to the decline of Ruffed Grouse include: predation from coyotes and foxes, competition and nest predation from Wild Turkey, a low point in the normal ten-year population cycles (Ruffed Grouse Society, 2015),” there is no scientific merit to these statements and it is unclear why they would be attributed to the Ruffed Grouse Society. The grouse cycle is more pronounced in the northern part of the grouse range and is not a factor in Indiana. All metrics, including grouse drumming surveys, used to monitor the population of this bird in Indiana have clearly and unquestionably shown an exponential decline approaching extirpation from the state and are completely unrelated to any cycle. Finally, examples in the scientific literature of the benefits of even-aged forest management for ruffed grouse and other young forest wildlife are legion.
The following websites should be reviewed by interested readers to further their knowledge of young forest management: