By JIM ABRAMS
It’s tough to hear about a good friend who’s fallen upon hard times, let alone the possibility of their passing. It wasn’t that many years ago that I would load up my Brittany or springer spaniel and head to southern Ohio to spend a little time with him and his far-flung family. We would spend hours walking the unglaciated hillsides playing hide-and-seek while I collected the memories that I conjure today.
We first met while I was in high school. He made quite an impression upon me and my little bench beagle, Chipper. We’d just turned a corner and startled the one-time stranger as he relaxed beside a tree. I still smile as I remember how Chipper barked in excitement.
Just 40 years ago … it may sound like a lifetime to some but rest assured that it seems like just a flash of yesterday. I understood then that time passes and that things will change: I learned that from those aging dogs, but this friend seemed as eternal as a starry sky.
I’m sorry to have to report that the ruffed grouse, known as Bonasa umbellus by biologists and ornithologists, is in deep trouble. Indiana is now the first state to acknowledge how profound the problem has become by its consideration of listing the once-abundant game bird as an endangered species for the state.
Indiana’s grouse populations followed a pattern that is very familiar with many of the Midwestern states. Early settlers found grouse to be common throughout much of Indiana, but as years passed, increased agricultural pressure and the loss of habitat caused a rapid decrease in the population.
The Great Depression bought something of a reprieve as many farmers began abandoning marginal ground to concentrate on more fertile and productive soil. This led to a period of natural succession and reforestation. The grouse population expanded back into those areas while the state’s natural resource agency helped out with a relocation program.
By 1983 the ruffed grouse had expanded its range. In Indiana, 41 counties held healthy populations, their widest distribution since 1856. Like Ohio, the bird’s populations peaked in the mid-1980s but, since that time, their slide has been reaching a terminal velocity toward the abyss of eternity.
Today, Indiana reports that the ruffed grouse population has been extirpated in at least 15 counties, and that’s expected to reach 25 within just a few short years, barring any major forest disturbance.
The technical evidence is indisputable. The number of ruffed grouse is now less than 1% of the population from just 40 years ago. Unfortunately, Indiana isn’t the only state to recognize this dramatic loss. Eighteen others in an area that includes New England, the upper Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and Appalachians have listed the grouse as a species of concern. Their last stand has been taken up in the unglaciated areas of most of those areas.
Like a patient’s cough may be blamed on a passing malady, many early warning signs were passed off as the grouse’s well known cyclic population spikes and dips; a recognized pattern with little explanation. Sadly, this patient’s cough was the onset of a graver situation. A 99% reduction in population can barely be considered anything but grievously serious.
Regrettably, the crashing populations come as no surprise. Like good doctors, wildlife biologists across the ruffed grouse’s range have seen the warning signs of ill health and have been sounding a call for action for over 25 years. In 2015, Indiana suspended all grouse hunting, and in 2018 not a single grouse was heard drumming during Indiana’s spring roadside counts for the sixth consecutive year.
“To put that into perspective, in the early ’80s we were harvesting over 10,000 birds a year. We were also trapping and trading grouse for wild turkeys and helping other states with their restoration of ruffed grouse,” explains Steve Backs, a wildlife-research biologist with the Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife.
Their plight is a reflection of the declining successional habitat required for the bird’s existence — a critical habitat shortage that affects many upland-dwelling species, from bouncing warblers and long-beaked woodcock to the secretive little gray fox.
The remedies offered by biologists seemed too much, too difficult, too hard to sell … and now, could they be too late?
As is true with all wildlife species, habitat remains the key. Forest health is the all-important factor in managing ruffed grouse. Many walk through the forest and have a picture of what it should be. Tall, straight trees with squirrels hopping playfully. Logging curtailed and under-growth minimalized. Trails and bridges allowing easy access. Fires eradicated. In one word: pristine.
Sounds great on paper, but that ideal is neither natural nor a friend of wildlife, except for those bouncing squirrels. Misperception about timber management is a big reason why ruffed grouse habitat has disappeared.
All the affected states suffer the same management hurdles, modern land-use practices, public policy and social trends with regard to harvesting timber. The ruffed grouse, as well as many upland wildlife species, require a mix of successional habitats, marginal areas and timbered belts to survive. At one time, naturally occurring fires may have done this job, but today regulated timber harvesting and restoration projects fill that niche.
Ben Jones, president and CEO of Ruffed Grouse Society and member of the American Woodcock Society, said: “On the path of inaction, ruffed grouse will be completely gone from Indiana. In the 18 states on the bubble, they will be listed as endangered soon (it may be warranted already). With further inaction, they will be gone from these states as well. All this occurring in less than a lifetime.”
In Ohio, the Division of Wildlife warns wildlife enthusiasts and hunters that they’re likely to encounter poor grouse numbers during 2019 with the roadside drumming counts and hunter flush rates remaining at historic lows.
Yes, 40 years may seem like a lifetime ago … but for the ruffed grouse, it may truly be so. We may be witnessing its end across much of its home range. How sad that we might allow this to happen.
Consider joining the Ruffed Grouse Society at ruffedgrousesociety.org
Report turkey and ruffed grouse sightings at wildlife.ohiodnr.gov/species-and-habitats/report-wildlife-sightings
“When I hear of the destruction of a species, I feel just as if all the works of some great writer just perished.” — Theodore Roosevelt
“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant: ‘What good is it?'” — Aldo Leopold
Along the way:
Buying an Ohio Wildlife Legacy Stamp allows wildlife enthusiasts the opportunity to directly impact the future of Ohio’s native animals. For $15 you’ll receive a collectible stamp, window cling and commemorative card.
The Legacy Stamp supports habitat restoration, land purchases and conservation easements, keeping common species common, endangered and threatened native species, educational products for students and wildlife enthusiasts, and wildlife and habitat research projects.
My grandmother often said, “God help he who helps himself.” It usually was to point me in the direction of working toward an end. I think that it’s also true that “God help those who choose to help.”
Order online at https://oh-web.s3licensing.com or it can be ordered anywhere hunting and fishing licenses are sold.
• Tomorrow: Sporting clays, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., UCOA, 6943 Marion Township 243.
• Monday: Introduction to hunting, 6:30 p.m., Sandusky County Sportsmen’s Club, 3950 Ohio 600, Gibsonburg. The program is free and covers hunting of the most popular game species in northwest Ohio. It will be held indoors. Bring note-taking materials.
• Thursday and Friday: Trap and skeet, open to the public, 5 p.m., UCOA, 6943 Marion Township 243.
Abrams is a retired wildlife officer supervisor for the state Division of Wildlife in Findlay. He can be reached at P.O. Box 413, Mount Blanchard 45867-0413 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org