Upland bird hunters are looking forward to the day when grouse are again doing well all across Pennsylvania. But when might that be?
Photo: PA Game Commission
How long will grouse hunters have to sacrifice?
That’s the great unknown.
Pennsylvania Game Commissioners eliminated the popular post-Christmas grouse hunting season for the 2017-18 license year because the birds are in trouble. All indications – from brood sightings to flush surveys — suggest populations are at a 50-year low, said the agency’s grouse biologist, Lisa Williams.
Almost three quarters of hunters who took time to contact the commission supported the season closure.
But they also asked questions.
How soon might things get better? What will the commission do to help the birds? And most importantly, perhaps, by what measurements will the commission monitor changes?
“There’s very much a sense of, that if we make this sacrifice now, that you have to keep your end of the deal. We heard that again and again,” Williams said.
Lisa Ordiway, regional biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society, echoed those sentiments.
She took the commission to task for what she perceived as failures to properly support grouse over the years. Now, she said, it needs to clarify where it’s headed and how it will know when it gets there.
“There is a need to identify targets that our hunters can relate to and work toward collectively and collaboratively. It gives disheartened grouse hunters hope and makes all of us accountable for a resource all grouse hunters treasure,” she said.
Answers, though, were few.
The late season closure is intended to be temporary, Williams said. It’s a means of protecting birds while the commission evolves an “adaptive management strategy.”
The idea is to measure grouse abundance and productivity, she said, then set seasons much as is done with doves and waterfowl. In those cases, seasons can change year to year based on bird numbers, Williams said.
But how temporary the late season closure will have to be while that adaptive strategy is figured out she’s not prepared yet to say.
“My personal goal is to bring back some form of the late season as soon as we can. But I can’t give you a time frame,” she said.
Grouse are facing two problems, William said.
One is West Nile virus. Declines in grouse numbers parallel outbreaks of the disease, she noted.
The other is lack of suitable habitat. Williams said the percentage of forests in “early successional stage” – i.e. less than 15 years old – is in short supply.
Ordoway blamed the commission for that, at least in relation to state game lands. The commission exists to support wildlife and hunting, she said.
“For the population of ruffed grouse and condition of the habitat to be where it is today, the (commission) has failed to uphold its vision and its mission,” Ordiway said.
Commissioner Dave Putnam of Centre County admitted there was a time decades ago when the agency cut trees only to raise money. That’s no longer true, he said.
Now, he said, the commission is targeting habitat.
“I can tell you the Game Commission has never done more non-commercial work, or more low-value work, or more outside-the-box-type projects where we’re selling these projects at a break-even basis, than we’ve done,” Putnam said.
It’s just going to take a while to bring those projects to fruition, he added.
Habitat creation – on game lands and elsewhere – needs to increase, Williams agreed. What the commission has done to this point “has not been enough.”
But making “pockets” of it won’t be sufficient. Grouse don’t move far in their lifetime, she said. In making places for them to thrive, the commission and other landowners need to think in terms of “connectivity.”
“We need to understand where grouse are in good numbers and start building out from there,” Williams said.
It took time for grouse populations to drop, she added. It will likely take time to bring them back up, too.
But the commission needs to work toward that goal, always keeping hunters in mind, Williams said.
“Pennsylvania’s state bird, the kind of thunder, deserves nothing but our best effort,” she said.