The Rise and Fall of the Ruffed Grouse, and Associated Myths

A DNR biologist once told me that the hunters could never kill enough grouse to harm the population as a whole. Grouse were resilient and as long as there was adequate habitat they would continue to thrive, he explained. Which brings us to the big lie: "Grouse need clearcuts."

By Curt Mayfield, IFA Board Member

Bob hollered from 40 yards above me on the ridge, “They’re in the pines!” Of course they were in the pines, they were always in the pines. He was talking about Ruffed Grouse and it was the fall of 1979. As I moved along the creek bottom thicket I heard the familiar rumble of grouse wings as one flushed and then another. Soon another bird flushed and I heard two shots from Bill?s location, which was part way up the hill to my right. Did you get him? “No,” came the reply. Grouse are the most difficult birds to shoot on the wing. Mainly because of their speed and the fact that no one really knows when or where they will flush. Even with a close hunting bird dog such as a Brittany Spaniel, it can be a challenge to get a bead on moving birds in thick cover.

Photo of Curt Mayfield.No one killed a bird that day and it turned out that those were the only two shots fired by our group of three. It was late October and by the time the season ended in January each of us had a bird or two in the freezer. Better shooting and reduced leaf cover helped contribute to our success. Most of the birds that I harvested were consumed the next day. And I can say that there is no finer tasting bird than Ruffed Grouse. Even poorly cooked grouse tastes better than chicken, turkey, pheasant, or quail. They are simply the best.

And now they are all but gone from Indiana. Why? There are still a few grouse scattered throughout their range. I know where there are two in the Yellowwood State Forest, which is useless information as the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has closed grouse hunting in Indiana. Also, that area was logged last summer and it’s hard to imagine that the grouse would still be there. How did we get to this point in grouse management?

A DNR biologist once told me that the hunters could never kill enough grouse to harm the population as a whole. Grouse were resilient and as long as there was adequate habitat they would continue to thrive, he explained. Which brings us to the big lie: “Grouse need clearcuts.”

Let’s think about what brought grouse to peak numbers in the 70s and 80s and then a rapid decline in the late 90s. Biologists talk about a 10-year cycle of high and low numbers in grouse population. But, I killed my last grouse in 1996, and every year after that grouse were hard to find. That is 19 years of low numbers. There is no evidence to support a 10-year cycle in the grouse coverts that I hunt. Many hunters have stopped hunting grouse, but I have continued to go out two or three times a year. It was still enjoyable to be in the woods in grouse season regardless of the results.

When the state forests were established, the majority of the land was homestead farms that had failed. Poor farming practices were, in general, what led to failure. The areas that were cleared were used for crops such as corn and vegetables. These are the sites in the state forests where we find pine trees today. They were planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps to prevent further soil erosion. Every one of these farms had a woodlot nearby because they needed wood for heat and cooking. They used wood every day. The trees that they cut were of a manageable size.

That’s why we can still find trees of an enormous size on our state forests. So, we had many small farms with woodlots scattered across the countryside. Those early pioneers were all hunters in addition to being farmers. Many raised chickens, pigs, and other livestock. Many of them trapped for food and extra income from fur. They also had to protect their livestock from predators. Deer and turkeys, as most of us know, were hunted to extinction. Grouse, on the other hand, were not. These early hunters were looking for food, not sport. The only grouse they ever killed were the ones that they could shoot on the ground or out of a tree.

Large predators were hunted to extinction as well. Hawks and owls were shot on sight to protect domestic fowl. Long-haired fur was in demand so trapping for bobcat, fox, and raccoon served a dual purpose: predator elimination and income. So now we see in addition to small farms and woodlots, the elimination of many species that prey upon or compete with grouse. Once the farms were abandoned and taken over by the federal government and leased back to the state we had a perfect habitat for grouse, with good cover planted in pine and hardwoods nearby, unlike clearcuts which become monocultures dominated by the fastest growing species.

It has been established that grouse, a ground nesting bird, are preyed upon by a wide range of animals. Even squirrels have been known to eat the eggs and nestlings.

As time passed, grouse numbers grew and deer were reintroduced. It should be noted that grouse populations rose to the point in the 1950s that the DNR live trapped and reintroduced grouse from southcentral?Indiana to other parts of the state. This effort was considered to be a failure by the DNR.

There didn’t seem to be much competition between deer and grouse, and I often found the best deer hunting spots while grouse hunting. In the 1970s we saw a huge resurgence in numbers of deer and grouse. And then something happened: the wild turkey was reintroduced. Turkeys have been outcompeting grouse ever since. An event that occurred at the time just prior to one of the wild turkey reintroduction efforts was the live trapping of grouse by the DNR. These live-trapped birds were sent to the state of Missouri in exchange for turkey. This trade was considered by many to be the bane of grouse hunters in Indiana. We began to see more turkeys and fewer grouse in the woods. The DNR attributed the grouse decline to the 10-year cycle.

Then something else happened: the coyote, once rare in Indiana, began to populate the entire state. Coyotes were once so rare in Indiana that when a trapper caught one in 1976 it made headlines in my local paper. Now, coyotes can be heard howling at night just about anywhere in Indiana. They are an apex predator with no natural enemies except for humans. They know what a turkey call is. I have called in a number of coyotes while turkey hunting. So, it seems reasonable to infer that they know that a drumming grouse is an easy meal.

According to surveys conducted by the DNR, grouse numbers were at a low ebb in 2003 and then began to increase through 2006. They dropped some in 2010 and then leveled off. In 2013 there was an increase, especially in the southcentral part of the state. Coyote numbers have been increasing steadily since 1992.

Now in 2015 the DNR has decided to close the grouse season. There have been grouse seasons of varying length in Indiana since 1965. I killed my first grouse in 1971, so I think I know what grouse habitat looks like. A lot of people would have us believe that grouse need clearcuts. I don’t think so. It’s true that they thrive in thick cover, but what they really need are vast tracts of undisturbed wilderness. They won’t survive in forests that are logged on a regular basis. Forests that are crisscrossed with haul roads that turn into corridors for predators once logging is finished do not make good grouse habitat. Grouse made an amazing recovery in 20 years from 1965 to 1985. But, they had what they needed: greenbrier patches, aspen trees, and large tracts of undisturbed woods. If we don’t curtail the intense logging of our public lands, the grouse will be gone; given the current state of the DNR there won’t be a recovery at this time.

The official position of the DNR is that we waited too long to clearcut our public land and now it is too late for grouse recovery. There have been clearcuts on private land all over Indiana during the last 20 years, and a significant increase in clearcuts of varying size on our state forests dating back to the Daniels Administration. I think we can say that there is more to grouse management than cutting down trees and walking away, as some hunters believe.

In conclusion, let’s consider this premise. A series of land/wildlife management blunders led to a boom in grouse numbers. Then a reasonable approach to forest/wildlife conservation enabled grouse to thrive. In the last decade, our forests have been managed for timber production to the detriment of many species of plants and animals. It is time to return to forest conservation on the extremely limited amount of public land that is left before it is too late.

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