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.