Why we oppose clear-cutting for the ruffed grouse

Here is the testimony of Jeff Stant, Executive Director, Indiana Forest Alliance, on a proposed amendment to add the ruffed grouse to the list of endangered birds in Indiana. Delivered at a hearing of the Indiana Natural Resources Commission on July 30 at McCormick’s Creek State Park.

 

We appreciate this opportunity to provide comments on this proposed amendment to 312 IAC 9-4-14 concerning the ruffed grouse.  We will make the following points:

  1. Because it is a species native to Indiana that has undergone a marked decline over the past four decades, Indiana Forest Alliance supports the listing of the ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) as a state endangered species.
  2. We oppose the use of clear-cutting to create early successional habitat for ruffed grouse because of the harm such logging will cause to our natural forest ecosystem and wildlife species in considerably greater danger of extinction than the ruffed grouse.   

While the US Fish and Wildlife Service states this bird is declining across Indiana and other areas, nationally, the ruffed grouse is not a threatened or endangered species nor is it a candidate species for such listing under Section 4 of the federal Endangered Species Act.  Furthermore, the ruffed grouse is one of the most widespread game birds in North America and its Conservation Status according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature is “Least Concern” given this grouse’s stable numbers across much of its vast range encompassing the boreal and northern hardwood forests of this continent.  

That is not the case for many animals that depend upon the deep forest habitat in the public lands of south-central Indiana where the promoters of this listing are calling for clear-cutting to save the ruffed grouse in the state.  Examples of these animals include the Indiana, Northern long-eared, little brown and tri-colored bats all of whom rely upon forests in the Brown County Hills for their summer roosting and foraging.  The Indiana bat is nationally endangered and Northern long-eared bat (NLEB) is nationally threatened.  The little brown and tricolored bats are both undergoing formal “Species Status Assessments” under Section 4 of the Endangered Species Act for possible listing as endangered or threatened nationally, and the NLEB is undergoing a Species Status Assessment for possible upgrading of its status from threatened to endangered nationally.  All four of these bats are state endangered.  IFA sponsored surveys as part of IFA’s “Ecoblitz” inventory of flora and fauna in the Yellowwood and Morgan-Monroe State Forest Back Country Area captured an immature NLEB in 2014, located two maternity roosts for Indiana Bats, and captured a lactating female NLEB as well as an immature tri-colored bat in 2016. The surveys were carried out by scientists from Environmental Solutions and Innovations, and their results were reported to the Divisions of Forestry and Nature Preserves within the IDNR, and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).  In 2019, IFA’s Ecoblitz located a maternity roost of NLEBs and gathered acoustic monitoring data indicating the likely presence of the Indiana, NLEB, little brown and tricolored bats in the Combs Creek watershed within the Nebo Ridge area of the Hoosier National Forest.  These surveys were carried out by ESI and the results were reported to the US Forest Service (USFS) and USFWS.   

In Biological Evaluations for the Houston South Vegetation Management and Restoration Project, the USFS concedes the likely presence of all four of these endangered myotis species in the Houston South area of the HNF immediately to the south of the Nebo Ridge area and indicates these species likely use the Houston South area for summer foraging and roosting habitat. The Nebo Ridge and Houston South areas of the Hoosier National Forest encompass the former “Maumee Grouse Study Area” in the Hoosier National Forest. Thus, these species which are substantially more imperiled than the ruffed grouse, are surviving and rearing their young in deep forests in the Yellowwood and Morgan Monroe State Forests and the Hoosier National Forest that are mentioned as primary areas for vegetative manipulation, i.e., clear-cutting to create habitat for the ruffed grouse.  Aside from removing valuable roost trees, clearcutting during the maternity roosting season will kill females and pups of these species if their roost trees are felled when they are present.    

Due primarily to the deadly cave disease, White Nose Syndrome, since 2006, total numbers of NLEB, little brown and tri-colored bats are estimated by the USFWS to have dropped by 70% to more than 90% across their entire ranges.  In Indiana, winter hibernacula counts show an 82% drop in Northern long-eared bats, 92% drop in little brown bats and a 98% drop in tri-colored bats from 2009 to 2019 (data from Environmental Solutions and Innovations, Inc, Cincinnati, OH).  Given the extremely precarious status of these species, we believe proposals to clear cut in the best maternity roosting habitat for them on public lands in the Brown County Hills, the only lands where the government can ensure their protection, would be completely inappropriate and ill-advised.    

There are many other species that will be harmed by clear-cutting in the deep forest habitat within the unglaciated hill country of southern Indiana. Significant reductions in nesting success of many forest songbirds caused by the increase in predation and brood parasitism that occurs near human created edge from roads, farming and other human activities including forest management such as clear-cutting, is a well-established problem.

Research documents that forest song birds in forests in more fragmented environments experience increased predation and nest parasitism compared to the predation and nest parasitism those birds face in larger forests with more uninterrupted forest interior habitat.  A study of nine sites in areas with varying degrees of forest cover (in southern Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and northern Wisconsin) documented this increased adverse edge effect in smaller forests. Nests of three ground nesting warblers, ovenbird, worm-eating and Kentucky warbler and two species that nest near the ground in shrubs, hooded warbler and indigo bunting, were lost to predators such as blue jays, crows, racoons and snakes, at a much higher rate in forests in more fragmented landscapes.  Twelve of the thirteen cases of the highest daily predation, with more than 80 percent of these birds’ nests consumed by predators, occurred in the four most fragmented landscapes (in Illinois, Wisconsin and northern Missouri).  The authors concluded: 

Fragmentation at the landscape scale thus affects the levels of parasitism and predation on most migrant forest species in the midwestern United States…Parasitism levels of wood thrushes, tanagers and hooded warblers and predation rates on ovenbirds and Kentucky warblers were so high in the most fragmented forests that they are likely population sinks*…Our results suggest that a good regional conservation strategy for migrant songbirds in the Midwest is to identify, maintain and restore the large tracts that are most likely to be population sources. Further loss or fragmentation of habitats could lead to a collapse of regional populations of some forest birds. (p. 1989)

(*Population sinks are described in the study as forests in which local reproduction of these birds is insufficient to compensate for adult mortality. (p. 1988))  While listing the ruffed grouse as state endangered does not pose a danger to the forest base in the Brown County Hills such as highways, or land development that could fracture and reduce this forested area, this study underscores the high importance of maintaining the unfractured integrity of large tracts of forest that exist within southcentral Indiana.  Why?  Because they are populations sources for declining central hardwood forest songbirds such as the hooded and worm eating warblers which are species of special concern in Indiana.    

 The largest study done on the effects of cowbird parasitism on forest songbirds in Indiana monitored 1,293 nests in six different forest landscapes in Yellowwood State Forest and the Hoosier National Forests during four breeding seasons. The study examined levels of cowbird parasitism on nests from large “exterior” forest edge created by clear-cutting, utility corridors and agriculture and from the “interior” forest edge of “patch” openings from smaller clearcuts, clearings for early successional wildlife habitat, and group tree openings in selective logging.  

The study showed that nests of forest song birds closer to both exterior and interior edges from timber harvests were more subject to parasitism by cowbirds, than nests of these birds in unlogged interior forest.  For example, the parasitism of worm-eating warbler and ovenbird nests increased from 12% and 8% respectively of nests in unlogged interior forest to 33% of their nests near interior forest edges.  Parasitism of red-eyed vireo and wood thrush nests increased from 10% and 8% in unlogged forest to 20% and 50% respectively of their nests near forest interior edges created from logging.  The authors concluded:

“When combined with other deleterious effects of forest fragmentation such as reduced habitat availability and increased nest predation, brood parasitism may seriously threaten neotropical migrant populations. . .. Management activities presently occurring in state and national forests, such as timber harvests and the creation and maintenance of forest openings, increase the area of internal edge habitat.  Such habitat alteration may reduce nesting success and thus detract from this landscape’s value as a source for populations of neotropical migrant birds.”

The Cerulean Warbler is a forest songbird that breeds in mature deciduous forests (both in the northern and central hardwoods) of eastern North America and requires heavily forested habitat for nesting.  Comprehensive management guidelines issued by the American Bird Conservancy state that a decline in the total population of this bird of 70% since the mid-1960s has resulted in its designation as a species of national conservation concern by the USFWS and as a Continental Watch List species by Partners in Flight. These guidelines state, “In mature forest stands that have high cerulean densities and high nest success, the no-harvest option is most favorable for sustaining cerulean populations.” 

In Indiana, the cerulean warbler is state endangered.  Nesting studies for the cerulean warbler indicate that even in the Brown County Hills, the only region in the state whose forests have been documented to be a source rather than a population sink for this bird, cerulean nests closer to roads are not as successful as those deeper in the forest.  A study of cerulean nesting success in the Hardwood Ecosystem Experiment in Morgan-Monroe and Yellowwood State Forests concluded:

“Despite the tendency of Cerulean Warblers to select nest patches and territories closer to roads, nests located farther from roads were more successful than those nearby. This may be due to increasing edge effects closer to roads, such as higher rates of predation or brood parasitism (Buehler et al., 2013; Swihart et al., 2013). Cerulean Warblers may be attracted to the canopy gaps and attendant heterogeneous vegetation structure created by roads, but if females place their nests in these areas, they may suffer reduced reproductive fitness as a result.”

Also, the 2014-2018 IFA Ecoblitz sponsored a study that documented nesting success for cerulean warblers in the Low Gap Nature Preserve and adjacent forests unmanaged by any silviculture for at least 50 years along the East Fork of Honey Creek in the Back Country Area of Morgan-Monroe State Forest.  Its results are summarized and being peer-reviewed in a report of overall results from this Ecoblitz to be published by the Indiana Academy of Science.  IFA surveys also documented more than 70 territories for cerulean warblers, many with nesting activities, in the Houston South area of the HNF in 2020 as well as cerulean territories along the creeks in the Combs Creek area of the HNF.  The results of these surveys will be published in reports in August and December, 2020.       

These studies demonstrate that the mature forests on public lands in southcentral Indiana, which are stated target areas for the clearcutting being called for by initiators of this rulemaking, are providing critically important habitat to eastern forest songbirds that are in as much if not significantly greater declines in their total populations than the ruffed grouse.  Furthermore, they indicate that clear-cutting will harm remaining populations of these birds in Indiana.    

There is also abundant research documenting adverse impacts to amphibians, particularly salamanders from clear-cutting and other logging operations. Terrestrial salamanders are abundant vertebrates that can significantly influence invertebrate composition and decomposition rate in the detrital ecosystem of the forest floor. They are also prey for many other forest vertebrates including snakes, birds and mammals.

A randomized, replicated, controlled study in 1994–2007 of harvesting in six hardwood forests in Virginia, USA found that 13 years after harvests, salamander abundance at leave-tree harvested sites was about as low as at clearcuts at 4 individuals versus 2 individuals per transect respectively but  significantly lower than at unharvested sites which had  7 individuals per transect.  The salamanders studied included mountain dusky, southern ravine, red-backed and slimy salamanders, the latter two also being common in the hilly forests of southcentral Indiana.    

A meta-analysis of 24 studies in North America found that all timber harvest methods (thinning, group tree selection, shelterwood and clearcutting) reduced salamander populations compared to unharvested control sites and that clear-cutting caused the most significant reductions in salamander populations.  

Another study found that 30-meter buffer strips between 11 vernal pools and clearcuts in Maine did not prevent adverse impacts on body size and biomass for the spotted salamander and wood frog in the pools.  These are two amphibians also found in Indiana’s hardwood forests. Nine and a half years after the clearcutting, female spotted salamanders still had not recovered their body size in clearcuts with 30-meter buffers.         

 

  1. The ruffed grouse has existed for centuries in large tracts of wild forest that are not managed by humans.  Smoky Mountains National Park, Roan Mountain State Park, Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Porcupine Mountains State Park, and the Adirondack Forest Preserve are examples of such forests containing breeding ruffed grouse populations in the eastern US.  Algonquin and Quetico Provincial Parks provide such examples in Ontario, Canada.  The bird was previously studied and found to be most abundant in the 1970s and 80s in large tracts of forests in the Brown County Hills where no clear-cutting was going on.  These were Yellowwood and Morgan-Monroe State Forests, Brown County State Park, and Maumee Grouse Study Area of Hoosier National Forest.  
  2. If clear-cutting were all that was needed to bring back the ruffed grouse, the 300 to 400 percent increase annually in logging often by clearcuts and large group tree openings (of up to 9 acres in size) that has occurred in the state forests for the last 18 years should have made some difference in reversing the decline of this bird.  It has made NO reported difference.    
  3. The ruffed grouse depends upon food sources such as quaking aspen buds and takes cover in trees such as white pines that are found in northern hardwood forests.  These trees will continue to retreat northward in the state as a result of the climate change problem.   We are concerned about calls to be managing our limited public forests to suit the needs of a game species that was at the edge of its geographic range to begin with in Indiana and will likely continue to follow the retreat of the northern hardwood forests out of the state regardless of how many acres of Indiana forests that we clear cut.      
  4. Related to our third point, the ruffed grouse exists in areas where there are large amounts of forests. Indiana has few such areas.  Attempts to reintroduce the ruffed grouse in the 1990s into Fish and Wildlife Areas such as Jasper-Pulaski, Winamac and Pigeon River failed in significant part because of the limited amount of forest in these areas.  In addition to acquiring more forest, we would favor the acquisition of more public land to be managed for early successional habitat, high stem counts and adequate food and cover adjacent to more mature forests on state and federal public lands to support ruffed grouse and other early successional species.  
  5. We strongly object to increases in logging in existing older forest (of 80 years or older) that limit efforts to restore more of the extremely small amount (less than a third of one percent) of current old growth forest (of 145 to 150 years or older) in our state forests.  We believe that the restoration of old growth forests to a landscape scale, with areas of 1,000 or more acres of old growth throughout our state forests, should be a major objective of the Indiana Division of Forestry to support forest dependent wildlife in Indiana.  We believe the Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife should also be restoring significant areas of old growth forest throughout the State’s Fish and Wildlife Areas to achieve this objective.  
  6. The Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife and proponents of this rulemaking must be willing to examine all factors that may be contributing to the decline of the ruffed grouse in Indiana objectively and substantively to develop plans that can arrest and reverse this decline without causing more harm than good to Indiana’s wildlife.  In addition to purported declines in early successional habitat, the impacts of limited forest acres in the state, private land activities within forests, real estate development, climate change, and predation rates should be part of this examination.