Ruffed Grouse – The Figures Don’t Lie

Went on my first grouse hunt last week in my home state of North Carolina. Or as we call it: Walking through the woods behind a dog with a gun on your shoulder. Yep, on a short hunt of just under two hours I flushed zero grouse. After experiencing a flush rate of over two birds an hour in New Hampshire earlier in the month it got me thinking about what the status of grouse is in our home state. So I contacted the upland biologist for the WRC and asked for charts from the Avid Grouse Hunter survey in which I participate. Besides the fact that chasing grouse is my chosen pursuit, we need to know why grouse are important.

Ruffed grouse are what wildlife biologist call an indicator species. What is that? Many wildlife species can adapt to changes in the ecosystem. A couple of local examples are bear and turkey. If food and protective habitat are not available in one location they simply move to another. Populations of both species continue to flourish in the mountains. Not so with grouse. Their habitat needs for breeding, protection and food are very specific. Thus if their habitat decreases so will the population. In our region the the variable that can most likely affect them other than habitat is weather during the hatching season. Therefore ruffed grouse populations are an indicator of the health of an ecosystem. Another reason they are an indicator species is because meeting their habitat needs also has a positive impact on other wildlife needing similar habitat.

The WRC has been conducting an Avid Grouse Hunter Survey since 1984. Participating hunters record data for each trip to the forests including date, location by county and private/public land, hours hunted, and birds flushed and harvested. At the end of each season the records are mailed to the WRC. The purpose of this study is to establish long term trends for the health of the grouse population. I’m no scientist, but I did have to take a statistics class in college (that was no fun). Individual data are important, but trend is more so. The trend doesn’t bode well for grouse in North Carolina. Let’s start out by looking at some of these data related to individual hunter success.

Chart from NC WRC

It’s best to start with a simple number, average number of grouse flushed per hunting trip. That’s what it’s all about anyway, right? As the first chart shows, in its inaugural year study participants averaged just under 4.5 grouse flushed per trip to the field. That number peaked between 1988 – 1990 to around 6.2 grouse per trip. Either one of those figures is great compared to today. In the last reported survey year that number had dropped to about 1.8 flushes per trip. But it’s not just the numbers that are important. Scientists like to look at trends. If you look at the line chart since the peak in 1990 the trend is downward. You can infer that with all other factors being equal hunters are seeing fewer grouse.

Chart from NC WRC

Now let’s look at some data to correlate to hunter success, percentage of hunts with no grouse flushed. In the first year of the study only about 10% of trips resulted in no grouse flushes per trip. That number has climbed dramatically over the past thirty years to about 48% of the trips resulting in no grouse flushed. It doesn’t show in either of these charts, but the average length of a hunting trip has not changed much, from 4.2 hours in 1984 to 3.7 hours in 2017.  So while hunters are spending about as much time in the field, their grouse contact success rate has significantly decreased. Basically, on every other four hour trip to the woods for grouse, you will have no bird contacts.

Now let’s look at a comparison of private and public land success rates, and further how that relates to timber harvests on public land.

Chart from NC WRC

First, let’s break down the flush rate by land type. The first chart here from the WRC graphically portrays that difference. Neither of them is positive. Private land is the top line and public the bottom. Despite a significant upward spike in 2011, both are trending downward since data collection started in 1989. In the most resent season, 2017, the rate hit its lowest point with about .25 (1/4) grouse flushed per hour on public land. Private land was slightly better but still below the trend at about .75 birds flushed per hour. Compare that to the better than two per hour we experienced in New Hampshire, and the better than one bird per hour when the data were first collected. This is not good news for either hunters or as an indicator of forest health.

Now let’s further look at the public land issue. And when you talk about public land in Western NC it’s pretty much the Pisgah/Nantahala National Forests. State managed Game Lands in the mountains account for only about 10% of the total public lands here. Mac McConnell lays it out in a May 2016 ForestPolicypub.com article comparing data from both the USFS and WRC.

Chart by Mac McConnell

As this chart shows, in 1992 the USFS was creating nearly five thousand acres of wildlife habitat through forest management, primarily timber harvests. At that time the average grouse flush rate recorded by the WRC survey was about 1.5 birds per hour. Moving to 2016, the USFS was only creating about 500 acres of habitat and the flush rate dropped to under .5 per hour. Again, the trend is important here versus individual points. Tying these two separate data together shows a direct correlation between timber harvests on public land and grouse populations. There is no denying the science.

So why is the grouse important? As the data show, as an indicator species it points to an overall unhealthy forest; at least for most wildlife. Another non-game species in decline that needs young forest growth is the Golden-Winged Warbler. Young forest growth also provides low browse for other animal like deer.

So OK, the forest is unhealthy for wildlife. Why is this important to hunting? Hunter numbers are declining. Two key factors in hunter recruitment and retention are access and opportunity. I’d say we’ve got the access part pretty well covered with over 1 million acres of public land in the mountains. But if game populations are low you don’t have opportunity. Imagine trying to introduce a new hunter to the sport of grouse hunting. They get all fired up, practice shooting, enjoy watching dogs work. But then they get to the field and every other trip to the woods there are no bird contacts. Just how long will they stick with the sport? Grouse hunting is tough and requires commitment. They won’t stay with it long.

So whether you are a hunter who wants to see more game on our National Forests or someone who enjoys nature and likes seeing a lot of wildlife when you visit public land, this science supports the need for more active management in the upcoming Pisgah/Nantahala long range plan. Let’s remember, we are visitors to our public lands; wildlife live there. And right now living there is tough.

Access Without Opportunity

Pittman-Robertson excise taxes have been declining the past few years along with hunting license sales.

If you’ve been following the Recruit, Retain, Reactivate (R3) movement it’s all about increasing the dwindling number of hunters in the country. Why is this effort getting so much attention and press? With hunter numbers down so are license revenues and excise tax (Pittman-Robertson) funding for state game agencies. This is not a made up crisis. I’ve been following the news for several years. Pretty much all the states have an R3 program trying to stem the tide. But I don’t want to get down in the weeds about trends, age stratification, etc.

I do support efforts to increase hunter recruitment and participation. There is one thing that bothers me about the discussion surrounding the effort. There are magazine articles and national meetings/conferences of federal and state game management folks along with major conservation organizations. When discussing solutions one of the topics of discussion is usually “access”. What this means is that the R3 program must consider access to land if R3 is going to be successful. There is truth in that. Access to private land, without paying for it, is scarce as hen’s teeth. Particularly true for the beginning hunter. But I rarely read or hear anything in these discussions about the other leg of the equation: opportunity.

Do you remember ever going out as a young hunter and never killing anything? Yeah, I know the politically correct term is harvest. But it is killing. What about not even seeing any of the game you pursue? You probably got frustrated, maybe even thinking about giving up the sport. Well, opportunity to me is about having game available to encourage new hunters to stay with it. So when it comes to R3, access without opportunity is meaningless.

Public land available in the United States.

Nationally we have over 800 million acres of public land; 614 million owned by the federal and 199 million by state government (see graphic). Most of that land is accessible to hunting. My guess is that most hunters have some access to public land within a reasonable driving distance, say one hour. The land may exist(access) but the game animals may not (opportunity). Right now on public land, at least in my region, opportunity is slim to none. It is especially true on National Forests. Here are a couple of examples for two popular species: whitetail deer and turkey.

  • There are nearly 1 million acres within the Pisgah/Nantahala Nation Forests of western North Carolina. It is part of the state Game Lands system, therefore accessible to all hunters with the proper licenses. During the 2017-2018 deer season a total of 1050 deer were reported killed on that land. Quick math says that’s about 1 deer per one thousand acres. With those odds, as a new hunter would you go there?
  • Your odds are even worse on bagging a turkey on those two National Forests. During the most recent 2018 Spring turkey season only 414 bearded turkeys were reported as brought to the bag. That’s one turkey per 2400 acres. So the new hunter gets the juices flowing, buys a shotgun, goes to a turkey hunting seminar, and hits the National Forests. Is he or she going to stick with it? Not in my mind.

Meanwhile, private land hunting for deer is the same region has shown better than 30% increase in harvest. You don’t even want to get me talking about grouse hunting data. Let me just say that it’s possible to put in a full day hunt on these forests and never flush a bird, much less put one in the game bag. Why is it this way? During public meetings to plan the future of these two forests we learned that less than 1% of the forest is early-successional young forest growth needed for wildlife habitat. Ten percent is the standard.

Let’s say I meet a young man at my local sporting clays course who shows an interest in grouse hunting. He’s done some research and likes the idea of walking behind a dog through the woods. A couple of videos of grouse erupting from cover piqued his interest. We plan to get together the following season. Over the next several months we work on his shotgun skills and he helps me with pre-season dog training and we discuss what bird hunting is like. His excitement builds.

He attends hunter safety training, buys a license, invests in some brush pants and boots in anticipation of the upcoming season. We hit the woods opening weekend. No birds. The following weekend after four hours of hard hunting we’ve had one flush with no shot. How many times will he repeat this before something clicks within his head and he figures it’s just not worth it. Will he buy a license next year? Not likely.

So you can pound the access drum all you want. But if national conservation groups leading the R3 effort are not concurrently pushing federal public land managers to make wildlife habitat a priority, you have access without opportunity. The millions of dollars spent on the national R3 effort will be for naught. You may get new hunters in the field or reactivate other hunters for one season, but after a couple of trips on public land with no success they’ll sell their guns and tear up their license. And the effort is about building lifelong hunters, right?

Access and opportunity must be seen as a package deal; the two legs the effort stand on. Walking on public land without wildlife is called hiking, not hunting.

The Last Bite – Letzter Bissen

 

Do you have traditions that are part of your game harvest? I’m not talking about playing poker in camp or who sleeps in which bed. No, I’m talking about at the site of the kill. A recent trip to Germany to visit family reminded me of the long established traditions there. No, I didn’t get to go hunting during this trip. Time with family was more important and it’s really not the prime time for hunting there anyway. But it was good to remember my experiences from 25 years past.

Now I’m not one into fist pumps or chest bumps between friends as a way of celebrating the harvest. Guess that’s one reason I don’t watch hunting shows on TV. Seems like that, followed by a “money shot” pose with the game, is the norm. Yeah, I know you’re excited because all your effort has paid off. Not saying it’s wrong. It’s just not me. It’s focused on the hunter, not the hunted. But is it really a way of honoring the life you just took? Guess I like the old German traditions.

IN GERMANY, YOU EARN YOUR HUNTING LICENSE

You earn your German hunting license, Jagdschein, you don’t get it. It’s not a matter of walking into your local sports retailer with a Hunter education card and buying a license. You have to go through a hunter education process that not only includes safety but also game identification, and discussion of all aspects of the hunt. It also includes weapons proficiency training in both rifle and shotgun. There is also traditional hunter dress. No camo clothing in Deutschland! Hunters dress in forest green clothing. There are a lot of traditions associated with hunting in Germany, one of which includes a rather elaborate ceremony when the Jagdshein is presented.

Hunters receive their license in a formal ceremony that is part of the tradition.

On many hunts where there is a large group of hunters, like a small game hunt for pheasant and rabbit, at the end of the hunt the game is laid out in a certain order of importance, hunters gather in a semi-circle behind the animals, and hunting horns are sounded to signify a successful hunt. How’s that for tradition?

Hunting horns are sounded at the end of a successful hunt.

During my time hunting in Germany I experienced several of these but my most cherished in called The Last Bite, Letzter Bissen. Each time a hunter harvests a large game animal there is a simple ceremony at the site of the harvest. The hunter breaks off a small evergreen branch and puts it in the mouth of the animal to symbolize the last bite. The guide, or Jagermeister, breaks off a small branch from the same tree, wipes it in the animal’s blood, and sticks it in the hat band of the successful hunter. He then shakes his hand and says “Weidmansheil” (hunter congratulations) and the hunter responds “Weidmansdank” (hunter thanks). It is the hunters honoring the life of the animal just taken.

Gamsbock I shot while stationed in Germany. The Last Bite is in its mouth.

DOES LOSS OF TRADITION LEAD TO LOSS OF HUNTERS?

Part of me kinda wishes we would inherit some of these traditions here in the United States. Yeah, I know. Hunter recruitment is down and making someone go through a lengthy hunter training program will make it even worse. But isn’t there more to becoming a hunter than just attending a six hour hunter safety course? I teach the course. Believe me, we’re not building future hunters who understand the game they pursue and their habitat needs. We’re simply checking a block to meet a regulatory requirement. Don’t we owe it to the future of our sport to build knowledgeable hunters?

Our system of traditions in the past was built on the family unit. Grandfathers, fathers, and uncles took a young person under their wing at the appropriate age. They were not only taught gun safety, but also the lost art of woodsmanship (to show you how lost spell check doesn’t recognize the word). Traditions included sitting around a campfire after the hunt talking about the details of the day’s harvest which leads to stories of past hunts. Or sitting on the tailgate of a truck after a successful upland hunt stroking the feathers of the bird and reliving the excitement of the point and flush of that and past hunts.

Nope, now hunting in America is an event. We ride to the field in ATVs, use GPS to find our location, play video games on our phones waiting, shoot the game and go home. We have forgotten that a wild animal has given its life so that we may live. Maybe re-establishing those traditions is just the shot in the arm hunting needs to recruit new hunters. It is our connection with the natural way. Weidmansdank.

The Yellowstone Wolf Myth

Yellowstone National Park sign at the North Entrance;
Jim Peaco; October 1992

There is a recently released documentary video that is gaining steam. It’s called “How Wolves Changed A River”. You may have seen it. Heck, it’s had over 39 million views on YouTube. Good chance some of you are those viewers. I mentioned it in a previous blog post Lost Connection with Nature.  Lately I’ve been seeing more references to it. It’s designed to tug at the heartstrings and is being used by animal rights groups to show why wolves should not be hunted. The problem is, the concept presented in the video is myth. It has been debunked by numerous scientists.

Photo National Park Service

The documentary video is based on a scientific theory, Trophic Cascade. I’ll avoid getting down into the scientific weeds here, but the theory says reintroduction of one animal species at the top of the food chain into an environment totally changes the ecosystem. In this case, the video producer contents that reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park in 1995 totally changed the ecosystem. To the point it changed the flow of the Lamar River through the park. That’s heavy stuff!

I first became aware of the video when a friend shared it on Facebook and, knowing I’m a hunter and do some wildlife habitat reading, asked my thoughts. While watching the video my Spidey senses began to tingle when the narrator referred to elk as “deer”.

That started me on my research journey. I thought the theory interesting but needed more information. Turns out life isn’t that simple. As Aldo Leopold contends in “A Sand Country Almanac” the natural world is connected in ways we know, and ways we don’t yet know.

The first thing I learned is Yellowstone suffered massive wildfires in 1988 burning nearly 800,000 acres. That’s seven years before wolves returned. Due to the destructive nature of wildfires, significant impact was made on the Yellowstone ecosystem. Native plants were destroyed, new plants regenerated, wildlife species relocated, and subsequent rains on a vegetation barren landscape could have changed river paths. The fact is, the ecosystem was in its early stages of natural regeneration when they dropped the truck tailgate to release the wolves.

We have to look no further than where I live here in Western North Carolina to see the visible evidence of wildfire. We had two massive (for our region) wildfires in 2016: the Silver Mine Fire in Madison County in the Spring and numerous wildfires in the Nantahala NF in October-November of that year. Anyone who has visited those areas in the intervening period can see the results. The environment has changed there hasn’t it?

The video has other glaring omission errors, probably intentional. An article from the NRA Hunters’ Leadership Forum says some of the key footage showing habitat improvement is not from Yellowstone, or is from parts of Yellowstone not part of the normal wildlife habitat.

Also, the video contends the wolves reduced the elk, bison, and deer population to allow the natural regeneration. Yes, wolves are predators on those species. But elk and bison also learn to adapt to predators, and herds simply scattered or relocated and soon returned. The habitat is now much as it was pre-wolf.

Photo U.S. Park Service

Scientists who have actually spent time on the ground in Yellowstone largely call the video hype and say it is myth. Current research shows that beavers have a greater impact on Yellowstone’s rivers than do wolves. A scientist at Colorado State University suggests that changes in precipitation, stream flow, floodplains and water tables are also contributing factors to ecosystem change, probably more so than wolves.

I guess my point here is nature isn’t that simple. We have been scientifically studying wildlife and ecosystems in this country for nearly a century. Yes, we have learned a lot. But there is still much we don’t know. We know what kind of habitat wildlife desires and needs to survive. Carrying capacity for wildlife is based on several factors including a variety of cover and food sources. And either an overabundance or reduction of a species in that habitat can impact the ecosystem. Unforeseen events like wildfire, floods, and disease also changes an ecosystem. Did the chestnut blight decades ago change our mountain habitat? You bet.

In our instant information society we would like to attribute everything that happens in nature to a single event or magic bullet. Nature is too complex for that. When we are presented with a simple solution to a natural phenomenon we should question its precept. Our society has largely lost connection with nature and we still have much to learn. The answers can be found in science, not emotion. Let’s keep learning and studying to improve our understanding of our earthly home. I know that every time I visit nature it is a learning experience.

Lost Connection with Nature

An old high school friend I connected with on Facebook recently posted a video about how the re-introduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1994 completely changed the ecosystem. Down to the point they attributed the course change of a stream to the wolves. The first thing I noticed in the video was they referred to elk as deer. And that’s where our civil discussion started. I noted the producers didn’t know much about wildlife if they didn’t know the difference. She allowed as how despite that editorial glitch the concept was the same.

Photo U.S. Park Service

Well, no it’s not. I then pointed out that six years prior to the wolf re-introduction Yellowstone had a massive wildfire, largest in its history, that profoundly affected the ecosystem; more so than the wolf population. The landscapes recovery from the wildfire simply coincided with the wolf introduction. To attribute ALL changes in the ecosystem to one apex predator was a bit of a stretch. After our online discussion ended it got me thinking: This is what we face as sportsmen and conservationists. An uninformed populous that doesn’t understand nature and falls for “feel good” publicity.

I don’t like to make generalizations, but generally speaking the American population has lost touch with nature. And just so you don’t think I’m just pointing fingers at environmentalists and animal rights folks, there are hunters who don’t get it either. Prior to the above internet exchange I was talking to a fellow clays shooter about grouse hunting. He allowed as how his friend in Vermont didn’t hunt grouse anymore because the grouse in his favorite cover were gone. I expressed that it wasn’t the grouse were just gone but the habitat had matured to an age that it was no longer suitable to grouse. They just moved.

Nature’s landscape is beautifully dynamic and impacted by many events. No one knew that more than Native Americans prior to colonization. We’ve been taught to believe those early North American dwellers had a light footprint on their environment. That is not true. In Charles Mann’s book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus early scientific explorers found evidence that tribes routinely managed forests and fields for their own sustenance. They conducted what we call prescribed burns to help young seeds regenerate to attract wildlife and keep fields open. They also cut non-beneficial trees to allow mast bearing trees like oaks, hickory, and chestnut to grow for their own use as well to attract wildlife. I highly recommend its reading to understand early North America. You’ll be surprised.

Hunters are often blamed for the near extinction of elk in the eastern United States. And surely there were excesses with no game laws and a hungry population to feed in our westward movement. But another factor is that our colonization changed the landscape. Elk need grassy fields to graze. We turned those fields Native Americans had managed for wildlife into forests for a growing timber industry. Combine excessive hunting with a changing ecology and you see what we get.

Photo U.S. Park Service

Elk were not introduced into forested areas of the Smoky Mountains but an area with open fields, Cataloochee Valley. And as the herd has expanded they’ve sought similar habitat outside the Park boundaries. The North Carolina Wildlife Commission is now working with the U.S. Forest Service on land adjacent to the Park and also has acquired local land to improve habitat in a new Game Land.

Native Americans didn’t use science to manage the landscape, but simply knowledge and human reasoning passed down over generations connected to the land. The Roman philosopher Cicero called it Natural Law. Science is to a degree an extension of Natural Law. Yes, there are folks who still have that connection with the land; farmers and hunters among them. Like Native Americans, they depend on it for sustenance and as a livelihood. Unfortunately within the general populous that is the exception, not the rule. In its most recent survey the USFWS found only about 12% of the American populous hunt.For the proper conservation of our resources we need to try and understand the complex relationship of all the factors affecting an ecosystem. Study. Read. Ask questions. Walk the land. Don’t just take for granted what an advocacy group says. Remember, they are advocating for a purpose. Sometimes facts and science that don’t support their purpose are willfully ignored.

That’s what real hunters, anglers and conservationists do. Not only do we pursue game, we understand the landscape and how different factors impact it whether it is fire, timber harvests, or introduction of a wildlife species. We are connected to the land. We do that not just for the game but to heighten the experience and connect us with nature. That’s what our forbearers did. Why can’t we?

Forest Management Isn’t Evil

from Forest History Society
Carl Schenck with Biltmore Boys

A columnist, and historian, for the local paper recently wrote an article with glowing remarks for a local environmental group and their impact on U.S. Forest Service management of the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests. In that piece he put the words Forest Management in quotes. I don’t know about you, but normally when you see something written in quotes it is meant as a bad thing. That got me thinking: since when was forest management considered evil?

So I had to respond. Here’s the text of my email to him: “In your January 8th column “Of bogs, beavers, red wolves” you put forest management in quotes as if it is a bad thing. OK, I know the paper is in the tank for the environmental movement. But as a historian you should remember that American forestry started here in western North Carolina through the efforts of Gifford Pinchot and Carl Schenck. That heritage is recognized at the Cradle of Forestry near Brevard.

The scientific research Schenck, a self-described lumberman, did over a century ago in the Biltmore School of Forestry became the foundational principles for the newly formed U.S. Forest Service. Those principles encompass what is multiple use forest management: timber harvest for the local economy; recreational use for people; a variety of habitat for wildlife.

Until the environmental movement involvement in the 1990s you mentioned in that column those principles held true. Instead of conservation of resources, wise use, it became a model of preservation for human use. Forest management is a science, not an emotion which is what environmentalists bring to the table. Thanks to their efforts the forest no longer provides the economic benefit of timber harvest or habitat for survival of wildlife.

If you haven’t already, as a historian you should spend an hour viewing the documentary “America’s First Forest: Carl Schenck and the Asheville Experiment” to truly understand that forest management is not evil. It is about conservation, not preservation.

Timber harvest at the Biltmore School of Forestry

Western North Carolina is proud of its heritage but seems to have forgotten this part of it. Scientific forest management in the United States started here. Carl Schenck came from Germany as a trained forester but had to re-learn his science because of the variety of trees and terrain differences he was trained for in Germany. George Vanderbilt brought him here to manage his Biltmore Estate forest, a working/self-sustaining estate, with three purposes in mind: produce timber for income, recreational opportunities for Vanderbilt and his guests, and wildlife habitat associated with that recreation.

In doing so Schenck took local young men under his wing and trained them in his new forestry techniques. That became the Biltmore School of Forestry, first in the nation, and many of his students went to work for the newly formed U.S. Forest Service. The same principles he taught at that school also became the guiding principles for the Forest Service for following decades, that of multiple use.

Then arrived the environmental movement and everything changed. Management of the forest wasn’t about science but emotion. Thus the name “tree hugger” (and yes that’s meant in bad terms). In the 1990’s the model started turning from conservation with multiple uses to preservation only considering the recreational and emotional benefit of an undisturbed forest. Using regulations and litigation, along with an emotionally sympathetic and uninformed populous, environmentalists all but shut down timber harvests and thus wildlife habitat on the National Forests in our southern mountains.

Evidence? Year after year the Forest Service has failed to meet timber harvest goals for both economic benefit and wildlife habitat. This has resulted in the Pisgah/Nantahala National Forests being only 1% young forest growth when the goal is 10 percent. And wildlife has suffered.

During the most recent North Carolina deer harvest recorded year, 2016-2017, there were more deer harvested in one county in Western NC than on ALL of the Pisgah/Nantahala;  nearly 1 million acres. As reported by the NC Wildlife Commission avid grouse hunter survey data, grouse numbers continue to decline to the point that a hunter will have no flushes on one of three trips taken on Forest Service land. Non-game species like Golden-Winged Warblers are also in decline.

Schenck Instructing Students in Forestry

It is time to put the science back into forest management, not associate it with something evil. The research and teaching Carl Schenck did a century ago is still true today. Forestry management truly is a science, not an emotion. Wildlife habitat is also a science. No matter how many times environmentalists say they support wildlife habitat, their words ring hollow. They ignore the science in favor of an emotional response. A cautionary note to hunters: If you want to continuing pursuing game on federal forests you’d better stand tall, learn the science, and speak up. We need to spread the message: Forestry is a science, not an emotion. Forestry and Wildlife Management is not evil.

Photos courtesy Forest History Society – www.foresthistory.org