The Ruffed Grouse has been Pennsylvania's official state bird since 1931. It has always been a popular game bird and is the ultimate test for hunters of upland birds. Aldo Leopold, the father of modern wildlife management, said, "there are two kinds of hunting, ordinary hunting and grouse hunting."
The 2005-06 hunting season offers expanded recreational opportunities for grouse hunters. This decision was based on what we know about trends in grouse populations, grouse hunter numbers, grouse habitat and current knowledge on grouse populations. The Game Commission monitors all of these factors.
The number of grouse hunters and their harvests are recorded through the agency's Game-Take Survey, which is a sample of all hunting license holders. An additional survey, in which several hundred grouse hunters keep a record of their time afield, gives us the number of grouse flushed per hour of hunting, both statewide and by region.
The U.S. Forest Service inventories the state's forests by species and size of trees, which helps the Game Commission inventory preferred grouse habitat.
Looking back over three decades, the table and chart allow us to see where we've come from and help us to understand where we are today in regards to grouse populations and management. The data presents both good news and bad news for grouse hunters. While we don't have (and likely will never again have) the amount of good grouse habitat that we did in past decades, we still have relatively good grouse hunting.
Habitat is the most important factor influencing grouse populations. Grouse reach their highest densities in young forests - the brushy stages of growth called early-successional habitat. And, as most hunters know, this is where you go to hunt grouse.
Table 1 shows that forest habitat trends do not bode well for grouse. Between 1979 and 1999, Pennsylvania lost more than one million acres of preferred grouse habitat. We have as much forestland as we did 25 years ago, but it is aging, trees are getting larger and fewer acres are being cut. Older forests are good for turkeys and squirrels, but not so good for grouse.
Along with the decline in quantity of grouse habitat over the years, there has also been a decline in the number of grouse hunters. Hunter numbers dropped from more than 500,000 in 1979 to about 160,000 in 1999. While the acreage of early-successional forests declined by almost 40 percent between 1979 and 1999, the number of grouse hunters dropped by about 70 percent. The table shows that as grouse habitat and grouse numbers have declined, hunting pressure and grouse harvests have declined as well.
In 1979, 1989 and 1999, grouse flushing rates were similar. It is good news that, even with less habitat and fewer birds statewide, hunters can still experience excellent grouse hunting. The chart above shows that a flushing rate of 1.7/hour in 1995 compares to similar highs in 1967, 1980 and 1987. Comparatively, the low rate of 1.1/hour in 2003 was also seen in 1976.
It is well documented that grouse populations go through wide fluctuations, with or without hunting. These naturally occurring swings bring a large unkown into the process of assessing the impact of hunting mortality on populations. Parasites, disease, weather, habitat and predation all affect grouse survival. Results of studies on hunting mortality have shown mixed results. While hunting may influence grouse numbers in a local covert, researchers agree that it has little influence on populations over a larger landscape.
Pennsylvania has a history of later grouse seasons. Grouse season starts in mid-October, runs through late November and then picks up again in December. From 1982 through 2000, most of our counties had four to five weeks following Christmas.
In 2001, when days were added between firearm deer season and Christmas, the hunting days following Christmas were reduced to two to three weeks, keeping the total number of hunting days about the same.
Our objective is to maximize hunting opportunities while responsibly managing our grouse resource. After considering all the variables and trends in habitat, hunter numbers and harvests, we decided it was possible to offer a longer grouse season in 2005 with minimal impact on the population. The agency will continue to monitor grouse populations while allowing hunters to enjoy this expanded opportunity for time afield.
To become a grouse survey cooperator, contact Bill Palmer at 333 Sinking Creek Road, Spring Mills, PA 16875.
- Bill Palmer, PGC Wildlife Biologist