Agencies Partner for Troubled PA Game Birds

By Joe Evans

A state-agency partnership is creating more habitat for two troubled game birds and other wildlife species that rely on young forest.

Since 2011, the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources have teamed to restore thousands of acres of idle, difficult-to-manage habitat for ruffed grouse and woodcock on state forests.

Male ruffed grouse on drumming log

Male ruffed grouse drum to attract females in springtime. Grouse need young forest habitat for their populations to thrive./Ruffed Grouse Society

The partnership, spearheaded by DCNR’s Emily Just, an ecologist with the Bureau of Forestry, and Lisa Williams, a Game Commission game bird biologist, has been helping state forests and parks personnel write plans to remedy what ails now-marginal habitats that once supported substantial populations of ruffs and timberdoodles.

Both birds depend on young forests, which have been declining in Pennsylvania for some time. Grouse covet young upland forest, preferably with some adjacent stands of more mature trees; woodcock need young forest and shrubby thickets in soggy lowlands that offer their favorite food, earthworms.

“Pennsylvania is currently at a 50-year low for this critical habitat,” Williams explained. “The decline of young forest has been dramatic.”

The state lost about 30 percent of its young forest between 1980 and 2005, and the decline continues, Williams said. Just 5 percent of Pennsylvania forests are young – up to 19 years old – according to 2014 forest inventory data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service.

Reverting farm fields and bottomland, the loss of young forest to tree maturation, and land-use changes have hurt these popular native game birds. Sinking with their populations are somewhat obscure songbirds, like golden-winged and prairie warblers, the yellow-breasted chat and brown thrasher, as well as the more recognizable whip-poor-wills, box turtles and snowshoe hares.

Although grouse mortality also is tied to West Nile virus, habitat is the key to keeping the official state bird abundant in Penn’s Woods. It’s a conclusion resource managers back.

“Waiting until they’re almost gone and require hefty emergency care to save is not an option,” Williams emphasized.

American woodcock

Woodcock use damp-soil areas where they can find earthworms, a favorite food. They breed in young forest, also known as early successional habitat./T. Flanigan

So Williams and Just came up with an approach that evolved into an interagency habitat prescription service that leans heavily on collaboration and cooperation. They head into the hills to work with DCNR foresters on projects for grouse and woodcock throughout the state. They figure their teamwork has led to about 1,000 acres of new grouse and woodcock habitat being created annually.

Just said their now-established campaign started from outreach to forestry staff on opportunities to begin improving poor-quality stands, carefully working in forest buffers, or targeting hard-to-manage sites for grouse and woodcock through on-site visits. This thinking-outside-the-box approach supplements the positive effects that forest-management activities have on wildlife.

“The first year, a couple of districts were interested, and then it just took off,” Just recalled. “We started with foresters on ‘orphaned’ sites – primarily woodcock habitat. Moist-soil areas where they couldn’t do traditional work.”

To get the ball rolling, Williams and Just walk sites with foresters, talk to them about their objectives and their equipment limitations.

Williams and Just have a reputation among DCNR’s foresters for requesting as many targeted objectives for birds as they can – strewn trunks and treetops left on site for grouse, open clearings with shrubby thickets for woodcock, control of invasive plants and targeted promotion of beneficial trees and shrubs. Depending on the site, they also might appeal for softer, shrubbier woodland edges, tree islands and aspen or alder regeneration.

“Management of natural resources is complex, so there is much discussion about silvicultural prescription essentials and the needs of the birds,” Just explained. “We work hard to combine both needs as much as we can.”

“It’s really the way conservation ought to work,” stressed Williams. “The synergy in the relationships we’re building creates a lot of excitement, and it’s really paying off for the birds.”

Williams is quick to point out that Just makes it all work. She keeps the necessary paperwork going and looks for funding, which together take a lot of pressure off participating foresters.

Young forest habitat in PA

Young forest to the right of road was created through a timber harvest. Grouse, woodcock, cottontail rabbits, and many other kinds of wildlife find enhanced food and cover in young forest settings./L. Ordiway

“The guys know that she is going to be with the project for the long haul,” Williams explained. “We don’t just show up, say ‘do this’ or ‘do that’ and walk away.”
Game Commission regional staff also help shorthanded or equipment-light DCNR forestry districts carry out their projects.

“Everyone is playing to their strengths, so projects don’t get held up anywhere,” Williams emphasized. “Now we have as many requests as we have time to handle.”

Aspen is promoted where possible because it is an important tree to ruffed grouse, providing food – buds, catkins, leaves – all year long, Williams said. Even the way aspen’s leaves allow filtered light to pass down through the forest canopy promotes ground-level vegetation beneficial to grouse and other wildlife.

Aspen’s distribution is now threatened by landowner neglect – it needs to be managed actively to remain a part of the woods – and by Pennsylvania’s maturing forests. A colonizing species, aspen filled in the barren landscape after deforestation had leveled Penn’s Woods early in the 20th century, and as farmland reverted to forest.

Grouse responded, and Pennsylvania had fantastic upland hunting for several decades. But today, aspen makes up only a small portion of the state’s forestland.

But for all that aspen does for grouse, it’s only part of the solution.

“In Pennsylvania, young forests are going to save grouse, not aspen,” reinforced Williams.

The work ahead won’t be easy, because there are many other considerations that must be weighed when managing hardwood stands for grouse, such as long-term forestry objectives, the impact of deer browsing on seedlings, habitat needs of other plants and animals, invasive plants and landscape connectivity.

The planning is complicated, and getting the work done at a large enough scale to benefit wildlife takes many partners. Just points out that the Ruffed Grouse Society, National Wild Turkey Federation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program, and the Wildlife Management Institute all have been strong supporters of this ongoing partnership. (These entities are also Partners in the Young Forest Project, as are the Pennsylvania Game Commission and Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.)

Easter towhee

Many songbirds need young forest; the populations of species such as the eastern towhee have fallen as this critical habitat has become scarce./B. Thompson, USFWS

“While Partners for Wildlife and the Wildlife Management Institute assist with their use of on-the-ground machinery and expertise, the Ruffed Grouse Society and National Wild Turkey Federation bring an ingredient that is in very short supply – volunteers to help get the work done,” Just said. “Both organizations also have donated money and helped on-site with several of these projects.”

Many hands are needed, because the effort to right the deficiencies in the Commonwealth’s grouse and woodcock habitat is no small undertaking. Williams estimates Pennsylvania is about 800,000 acres short of the young forest habitat it had in the 1980s.

The lack of young forest and its wildlife consequences are hard not to notice. In 2013, the American Bird Conservancy identified early successional forests as one of the top 10 most-threatened bird habitats in America, Williams said.

“The loss of young forest means trouble for the species that need it,” Williams said. “In addition to grouse and woodcock, dozens of other species are declining. Change is needed to ensure they can have healthy populations in the future.”

Continued partnering among management agencies and conservation organizations will help. But Just stresses that more consistent funding is needed.

“State forests have tremendous potential for ruffed grouse and woodcock since we already sustainably manage forests to balance age class, and especially now that we are figuring out how to work in the more difficult sites,” Just said. “We also do environmental reviews of each project to ensure we’re not impacting other species. It’s a thoroughly proven process.”

The woodcock work has been especially encouraging, Williams said.

“Spring surveys indicate we’re supporting eight times the number of woodcock in managed sites than we see in unmanaged sites, where woodcock numbers remain stalled. The birds are showing us the work is making a real difference!”

The Game Commission and DCNR have been producing young forest through their commercial timber operations for decades. They each cut thousands of acres annually.

But with a deficit of 800,000 acres, every new acre of early successional habitat matters for grouse and woodcock. That’s where the collaboration of Williams and Just with DCNR foresters is paying off. It’s an indispensable partnership.

(This article can also be read online at the Ammoland website).