Emergency closure of the New Jersey grouse hunting season.
On July 17th the Fish and Game Council of New Jersey voted for an emergency closure of the ruffed grouse season in New Jersey. The Fish and Game Council is comprised of three farmer and six sportsmen representatives, as well as the Chairman of the Endangered and Nongame Species Council and a public representative at large. Their purview is to “adopt a Fish and Game Code for the purpose of providing a system for the protection and conservation of fish and game” in the state.
Essentially, they advise, suggest, and oversee the regulations dictating season lengths, restrictions, bag limits, zones, and other factors relating to recreational take of game through hunting and trapping. For hunters in New Jersey, the most obvious effect of these changes are highlighted notes in the new year’s Hunting and Trapping Digest. One of those highlighted changes will affect me directly as well as any other grouse hunters left in the state.
An historic look at New Jersey grouse.
To understand the current situation with grouse in New Jersey, one needs only look back into the state’s history. Not surprisingly, old aerial imagery reveals a patchwork of small and large farms throughout the state. North and south, farming was a large part of our state’s heritage, a credit to our nickname, ‘the Garden State.’ It is noteworthy that, in addition to the patchwork of farms, there is a stark lack of trees notable in the old photography. The slow hand of progress gradually transformed the landscape of New Jersey over more than 100 years.
Timber harvest in the early 1900s for building houses, clearing fields, and heating homes set the stage for early-successional habitat to be in abundance once those cleared areas grew up. As the farms were sold, defunct, or abandoned in the name of progress, many sat idle for a number of years before they grew their final crop of houses. It was during these transitional years, as the landscape of the state changed, that early-successional species thrived, and the species composition of the state changed as well.(1)
Obligate grasslands birds, for example, thrived in the state at the turn of the century because of a combination of non-modern farming techniques and the abundance of grasslands habitat. A combination of the loss of grasslands (i.e., farmland dedicated to hay and livestock), and the modernization of farming practices, led to a decline in these species. Two such species that once thrived in New Jersey, of particular interest to bird hunters, were bobwhite quail and ringneck pheasants.
For upland hunters in New Jersey, the current situation is the culmination of a long series of events. Back in the 70s, two successive hard winters decimated the already dwindling populations of wild (yes, I said wild) bobwhite quail and pheasants in the state, a blow from which they could not recover. The problem was not harsh winters, but rather that the populations had already declined so dramatically that they could not overcome two hard winters in a row.
My father, a New Jersey native and hunter of more than 50 years, speaks of hunting Assunpink Wildlife Management Area (in the central part of the state) and the potential that a hunter could harvest a New Jersey “upland slam”—four wild species (ruffed grouse, woodcock, pheasants and quail)—in one location. It is a sad state of affairs that one state could potentially lose three species of upland birds in one man’s lifetime, not something to take lightly.
A look at New Jersey grouse today.
The last stronghold of ruffed grouse in New Jersey is the portion of farmland most recently left to succession along the course of the Delaware River in the north of the state. The Tocks Island Dam Project includes roughly 40,000 acres of farmland in New Jersey and more in Pennsylvania which were acquired by the federal government for the creation of a dam and reservoir.
The project was subsequently abandoned by the government, and the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (DWGNRA) was created in 1978. As one would imagine, grouse hunting in the DWGNRA and surrounding public lands was very good during the 80s and 90s as the farmland was allowed to grow into ideal habitat for the birds. Now, 40 years later, that habitat has matured, fields are no longer mowed to maintain early successional stages and the forest is aging.(1)
Population bottlenecks happen as a result of any number of causes including disease, drought, climate changes or invasive species. These pinch periods are when an entire population is most vulnerable. As indicated above by the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, we are at a place where less than 1 percent of the available habitat is the young, successional forest grouse utilize for survival.
In the 70s, a lack of suitable habitat caused dwindling populations of quail and pheasants, setting the stage for winter loss to wipe them out. Our remaining ruffed grouse are in an extremely tenuous, and similar, situation.
The future of New Jersey grouse.
As folks who hunt species that thrive in successional habitat, I believe grouse and woodcock hunters are afforded a unique perspective on the transient nature of the natural world. We find a new cover on the cusp of supporting birds, hunt that cover and cherish it through its heyday, only to eventually abandon it when it is past prime. In my 25 years I have abandoned most of my best covers, finding no new ones to take their place.
In New Jersey, we face a self-fulfilling prophecy of reduced habitat leading to poorer hunting experiences, resulting in declining hunter numbers which in turn leads to fewer advocates for habitat—and the cycle continues.
If New Jersey is a lost cause for grouse right now, let us serve as a cautionary tale for others—a “ghost of grouse covers yet to come”—to help change the course in other states. We know what the answers are; we are very clear as to what grouse need to thrive, but can we be successful in implementation? The only way to break the cycle is by working with conservation organizations that share in the American model of wildlife and habitat management. To recruit new advocates and to educate the general public.
We can bring new conservationists into the fold, increase our constituency, and in turn our collective voice. I do believe that by working together we may restore historic grouse range to my home state. I truly hope we do, so that my son gets to watch a young forest grow, and support the ancestors of birds I once chased. If he’s lucky, he too will get to pursue ruffed grouse in New Jersey, though I suppose his future is in our hands.
(1) It is worth noting that there is a plan in the works to change the designation of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area from a “Recreation Area” to a National Park and Preserve. This is extremely concerning for those of us who do recreate in the area for a number of reasons, not the least of which the fact that hunting is not allowed in National Parks. Other activities like the stocking of pheasants and trout is also prohibited (the state has very active and successful put and take pheasant hunting and trout fishing). The designation will also carry associated entry fees for park usage, and a total capitulation to a ‘preservationist’ view of management. For the 20 or so years after I started hunting, the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife worked in concert with leadership in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area to maintain fields in various stages of early successional habitat utilizing brush hogging, and machinery up to and including bulldozers with drum choppers. These activities have since stopped, and only a level of maintenance mowing is done around parking lots. https://www.njskylands.com/parks-delaware-water-gap-national-recreation-area