by Jeff Stant, IFA Executive Director
Regarding Item 16 on the Agenda of the Indiana Natural Resources Commission Concerning the Petition to List the Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) as a State Endangered Species.
I appreciate this opportunity to express concerns of the Indiana Forest Alliance (IFA) about this proposed listing. IFA agrees that populations of the ruffed grouse have dropped significantly in Indiana over the past 2 to 3 decades. However, we are concerned that remedies discussed in the proposed listing of pursuing more even-aged silviculture, i.e. clearcutting of public lands in the southcentral portion of the state, are wholly unjustified and will cause substantially more harm to multiple interior forest-dependent species that are endangered, declining, species of special concern or range limited to the only heavily-forested area in the state. We are also concerned about the adverse impacts of such logging on water supplies, and the aesthetic value and use of these public lands for wilderness recreation not possible elsewhere in Indiana.
We wish to make the following additional points. First, while ruffed grouse do prefer a mix of forest habitats and stand ages including early successional habitat, it is an indisputable fact that ruffed grouse have long survived in unmanaged wild forests without help from foresters or game managers. The breeding range of this bird extends from central Alaska through thousands of square miles of unmanaged boreal and northern hardwood forest wilderness across Canada to the northern United States and south along higher elevations in the Appalachian Mountains to northern Georgia. One can find ruffed grouse in unmanaged old-growth forests in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota and Porcupine Mountains State Park in Michigan. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Frozen Head State Park, and Roan Mountain harbor breeding populations of ruffed grouse at the southern end of its range. These areas comprise nearly 1.8 million acres of mature, northern hardwood and coniferous forests. Much of it is in the old-growth condition, and none of it has undergone silvicultural practices for a great deal of time.
What else do these areas have in common as far as ruffed grouse are concerned? Lots of native aspen and native white pine. Aspen buds are a primary food for ruffed grouse. Several decades ago ruffed grouse flourished in parts of southern Indiana where there was enough wild forest with aspen and planted white pines, no longer native to most of Indiana, but indicative of the northern hardwood forest that this species has evolved in for thousands of years. There was no clearcutting going on in the large 60 to 90-year old stands of forest in the Maumee Grouse Study Area set up in the Hoosier National Forest in the 1970s and 80s, yet a viable population of grouse survived there.
Second, an increase in the creation of early successional habitat from logging appears to have had little positive effect on ruffed grouse numbers. Since 2003, logging has increased 300 to 400 percent from prior logging levels in state forests. One of the most common silvicultural applications in this logging has been group tree selection with openings of up to 9 acres in size. Clearcutting has also continued in the Hoosier National Forest from the 1980s to today. Clearcutting and group tree selection have been wide-spread on private lands in southern Indiana also during this period. Yet ruffed grouse numbers have plummeted in these very areas during this period.
Some 165,000 acres of State Fish & Wildlife Areas and 100,000 acres of state reservoir lands have many acres of early successional habitat. Yet ruffed grouse introductions in Winamac, Jasper-Pulaski and Pigeon River Fish and Wildlife Areas in the 1990s were unsuccessful.
We understand that ruffed grouse populations are subject to cyclical declines, but we don’t know why ruffed grouse numbers have been declining so sharply in Indiana. We do know that the large preponderance of Indiana is in the mixed hardwoods forest zone, not the northern hardwoods that historic range maps indicate the ruffed grouse was at the edge of its range in our state. Moreover, as climate change continues unabated, species indicative of the northern hardwoods such as aspen and white pine will likely continue to retreat north and steadily become less existent in the state.
If those within the IDNR supporting this listing want to objectively examine the facts and discern the causes leading to the decline of the ruffed grouse in Indiana and proceed in a manner that respects Indiana’s mixed hardwood forest ecosystem and the natural means of succession that occur in this system, then we can support this listing. Perhaps that examination will reinforce the demand for more public land acquisition which could, for example, expand the size of the 11,000 acres Pigeon Fish and Wildlife Area sufficiently to accommodate a reintroduced population of ruffed grouse.
However, natural succession has been turning over Indiana’s forest primarily by one or two big trees falling at a time for many centuries. Ruffed grouse have existed in the early successional habitat created in that system. Furthermore, the DOF’s Continuous Forest Inventory demonstrates that Indiana’s public forests are still relatively young, under 100 years old, with less than 500 acres of our 158,300 acres of state forests having returned to the old-growth condition of 150 to 300 years in age. That is far less old-growth forest than existed for a very long time while the ruffed grouse was “endemic” to our state. The answer for declining populations of ruffed grouse is not to do more clearcutting in the only area of our state that supports viable populations of many forest-dependent animals and plants that were arguably more common than the ruffed grouse was in pre-settlement Indiana but are indisputably more endanger of extinction from their entire range today than the ruffed grouse is. Those include the cerulean warbler (Setophaga cerulea), northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis), and little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus).
We ask that public hearings and a comment period be provided for any further consideration of this petition. Thank you.