It’s official. Ruffed grouse in Indiana are on the edge of extirpation. Steven Backs, our IDNR biologist that is known and respected across North America for his work and insight on ruffed grouse, recommended that the season on Indiana ruffed grouse be suspended. And probably not more than a dozen Hoosiers noticed when it was. Why? “Hunting pressure for small game species is generally self-limiting or self-regulating,” Back told me. “As populations drop off, so does hunting pressure. While we don’t have many grouse hunters left (who actually hunt in Indiana), we also don’t have many pockets of grouse left either.”
At one time all of Indiana had grouse. Since 1983 Indiana has lost over ninety-five percent of its ruffed grouse population. At that time forty-one counties in Indiana had populations of ruffed grouse. Now it’s just a few. Why? The loss of habitat. “The plight of ruffed grouse is worsening, certainly not improving. So far the Hoosier Hardwood Ecosystem Project personnel have not picked up drumming in either of the areas where some habitat improvement work has been ongoing.” Backs admits it may be too soon to see a grouse response to those efforts.
Being that ruffed grouse reside in thick forest, how can we determine their numbers? The conventional way to measure ruffed grouse populations is to drive a prescribed route through traditional ruffed grouse areas during the spring breeding season. The observer listens for males “drumming” as they try to attract females. Three years ago it was a silent spring. “The annual drumming male activity center count was conducted at the Maumee Grouse Study Area located on Hoosier National Forest in Jackson/Brown counties (an area that historically held high numbers of grouse). No male ruffed grouse were heard along the roadside drumming routes in 2012.”
“Roadside drumming indices and Maumee density estimates show parallel downward trends over 30 years. Ruffed grouse population levels are projected to drop below “viable population levels” within the next couple of years in portions of their existing range in south-central Indiana continuing a progressive trend toward extirpation unless some intervention (e.g. timber harvests of sufficient intensity) or sizable natural disturbances occur across the forested landscape to create early successional forest habitats.”
“Since 1983, ruffed grouse appear to be extirpated from 15 counties and this extirpation trend is likely to exceed 25 counties within a few years if no major forest disturbance occurs. The plight of ruffed grouse reflects the declining early successional habitat base that is negatively impacting a wide array of wildlife species.”
Indiana isn’t the only state having problems. While ruffed grouse are going strong in places like Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Canada, states like Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois, and Missouri are struggling to preserve the populations they have. While trapping excess grouse in northern regions and releasing them in southern regions seems simple on the surface, the subspecies aren’t the same. “At this point,” Backs said, “we are hoping to preserve our native stock (the Appalachian subspecies) in hopes that if habitat conditions improve, either naturally or through management, that we will see a positive response. This is imperative since the Appalachian subspecies of ruffed grouse is in decline across most of its distribution in the US.” What this means is that there are no strongholds of the Appalachian ruffed grouse so there are no sources for reintroduction. Backs hopes it never comes to that.
Not all is doom and gloom. “There is some hope with ongoing management efforts in Brown/Monroe/Morgan counties and the recent tornado damage that hit forested areas of Washington/Clark/Scott counties.” Ruffed grouse thrive in regenerating forests from timber harvesting or natural disasters and a wide swath of tornado damage can help spread grouse into new areas. “It’ll take at least five years to possibly see any response, but we have had some recent grouse observations in the tornado impact area.” That’s truly a silver lining from a dark cloud.
The sad thing is younger generations don’t even know what ruffed grouse are. I remember being in the woods as a child and hearing the familiar rapidly increasing thump, thump, thump that suddenly stopped. It reminded many farmers of the old John Deere tractors as they tried to start!
New hunters probably wouldn’t even recognize the drumming for what it was. Many more have never had the heart-pounding thrill of hunting “the king of gamebirds” or consuming the flavorful white meat.
So what can be done? Change the negative public perception on logging!
The Wildlife Management Institute (wildlifemanagementinstitute.org) summed it up nicely: “We understand that mature forests are important repositories of genetic material for plants and animals. Another kind of habitat is less well known but just as important. It’s called young forest (biologists know it as “early successional habitat”), and it’s essential for a wide range of insects, reptiles and amphibians, birds, and mammals, including many species whose numbers have fallen in recent decades.
In times past, young forest was more abundant across eastern North America, perpetually renewed by hurricanes, ice storms, wildfires, insect pests, spring flooding and ice scouring, and the activities of beavers. Today we hold many of those tree removing disturbances in check.
Irresponsible clearcut logging in the late 1800s and early 1900s gave all types of forest management a bad name, leading many Americans to conclude – incorrectly – that cutting down trees is bad for the environment. As a result, logging – once a major producer of new, regrowing forest –has slowed or ceased in many areas.”
We need to push the state and federal forestry agencies to improve habitat in key areas where small population of ruffed grouse still exist. Encourage selected timber harvest on public property. Yes, a timber harvest looks like a war zone at first but as the forest regenerates it provides valuable early successional habitat that everything from grouse and turkey to deer and quail thrive in.
Landowners in southern counties can also perform timber harvests and timber stand improvement. The key is opening up the forest canopy in large areas so that massive new growth springs forth. Ideal early-growth habitat averages 20,000 stems (saplings, vines, and brush) per acre and provides berries, insects, grass seeds, and countless other food and cover sources not found in old-growth or stagnant forests.
The future of Indiana’s ruffed grouse is bleak but there is hope. It wasn’t that long ago that deer were missing from our state and now we have record numbers and trophy-book bucks. If we work together ruffed grouse can once again be our “king of gamebirds”.