Ruffed grouse need diverse forest habitat

Jon Steigerwaldt is the forest conservation director for the Ruffed Grouse Society/American Woodcock Society.

Who are you/What is your role?

My name is Jon Steigerwaldt. I’m the conservation director for the Ruffed Grouse Society covering the Great Lakes and upper Midwest.

What is going on with ruffed grouse in terms of climate change?

There have been some concerns with the ruffed grouse population going back to 2017-18. There was a sudden population decline at a time when we thought the population would be going up. Ruffed grouse are a cyclical species. About every nine to 11 years their population hits these boom cycles followed by a bust cycle. We thought we were headed towards that peak of their 10-year cycle and the bottom fell out. This caused a lot of questions and prompted a three-year study in Wisconsin, now going into a fourth year, to look at possible effects from the West Nile Virus, a virus that’s known to have impacts on some of the eastern states.

There were also lot of other concerns like the 2017-18 heavy spring weather events that could have caused localized impacts at a very unfortunate time when a lot of ruffed grouse were either nesting or young broods were just hatching and could have been drowned out. There could have also been some synergistic effects with Eastern Equine Encephalitis, which is a native bird disease we’ve known about since the 1950s. What is concerning about diseases like West Nile Virus and Eastern Equine Encephalitis in the context of climate change, is that the upper Great Lakes Region is predicted to get wetter under current climate models. Wetter conditions would create better breading habitat for mosquitoes and perhaps exacerbate the impacts of such mosquito borne diseases.

What are other stressors on ruffed grouse?

Ruffed grouse are at the bottom of the food chain. Every predator out there wants to eat a ruffed grouse; they’re just like little potato chips running around. There are the charismatic predators we think of, like lynx, bobcat, hawks, eagles, owls, fox and coyote. However, nest predators like snakes, skunks, raccoons, and possum also play an important role in terms of ruff grouse ecology. We have to considered ruffed grouse as a keystone species in regard to their importance as an abundant food source for so many other wildlife species.

What is the habitat that’s best for them?

Good, diverse forest cover is extremely important for ruffed grouse habitat. Birds will utilize different age classes of timber at different times of the year. For example, “brushier” habitat found in younger forests act as a roof to shield ruffed grouse from avian and other predators. We also consider ruffed grouse to be a good bellwether for forest health overall, because if we have a balance of young, middle aged and old forest, it’s a sustainably managed system to continually provide that cover to grouse, as our forests continually age.

Ruffed grouse also do this thing called snow roosting. In the winter time, they burrow into about a foot of soft fluffy snow. This helps them evade predation and better thermal regulate their body. When they have good burrowing snow, they use less energy and have better survivability. In the past several years, while we have gotten good snow for snow roosting, it’s happening later and later into the winter. It’s not happening in December like we’ve seen historically, it’s happening in January. That’s almost an entire month where ruffed grouse are more exposed to the weather and predation in general. Being part of that bottom of the food chain, this will lead to greater and greater impacts on the ruffed grouse population as we lose that important part of their winter ecology.

It’s not that ruffed grouse will perish if they don’t have snow. That’s an important distinction I want to make. Ruffed grouse — as far as upland game birds in North America — have the widest range and are found throughout the northeastern United States, Great Lakes region, the Pacific Northwest, and all the way through Canada up to Alaska. They’ve got a very large range and Wisconsin is not the southern extent of their range. Ruffed grouse are found in the southern Appalachian region, where they don’t get snow. It’s important to make that distinction that the elimination of snow is not going to get rid of ruffed grouse. But it’s definitely going to have impacts on their overall health. A less healthy bird coming out of winter is not going able to weather the effects of things like the West Nile Virus as well as a healthy bird.

Can you talk about the Ruffed Grouse Society members and conservation?

Even though we have had a decreasing population of ruffed grouse and grouse hunters since the 1980s, Wisconsin is still one of the top three ruffed grouse hunting states in the nation. In terms of conservationist attitudes and how you become a conservationist, I give the example of bluegill fishing. Everybody starts out fishing for bluegills because it’s easy. Next you go after numbers and want to catch the most fish possible. Then you’re no longer interested in numbers and you’re interested in a trophy animal.

After you get your trophy, now it’s no longer about catching the animal, it’s about the method. For example, getting into fly fishing or making your own flies. And then, after that you graduate to a conservationist where you don’t even care about fishing anymore — or in this case the ruffed grouse hunting — you’re concerned about conserving their habitat for the future. You’ve caught your fish, you’ve caught your numbers, you’ve caught your trophy, you’ve perfected your art, and now you’re really concerned and passionate about the habitat. That’s where I would categorize a lot of our members. It’s not just about the hunting. And in fact, about 10 percent of our members are non-hunters.

Do you have hope for the future in terms of ruffed grouse?

I guess knowing what I know about climate change and the hurdles that we face when it comes to ruffed grouse, it’s going to be an uphill battle. There are a lot of problems with managing for the upland game birds right now and a lot of them are getting listed in state wildlife action plans as species of greatest conservation need or concern.

What’s one thing that you would want people to know if they want to help?

The projections show that ruffed grouse will largely retreat out of a lot of states that are in my region in the next 40 years. A lot of that is solely due to climate change but there are a lot of other factors at play here. There’s evidence in the scientific literature that we do not have very diverse forest when it comes to species composition and structure. We’re not creating the types of habitats that our upland bird species need. If we don’t do a good job managing the habitat, we’re going to lose a wide variety of bird species regardless of what climate change does. We need to continue to create good, healthy, diverse forest habitat through sustainable forestry practices.

We do have a few things that work in our favor in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan. We have an abundant aspen population, and, if you cut down an aspen forest, it’s almost guaranteed that you’re going to create the right habitat conditions for ruffed grouse. We as public lands managers and private forest land owners just have to be willing to overcome the hurdles presented to us to create good habitat. Often times that’s our own bias not to create young forest.

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The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the authors and do not represent official policy or position of the University of Wisconsin-Madison or the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts.

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Jon Steigerwaldt
Forest Conservation Director: Great Lakes/Upper Midwest
Ruffed Grouse Society/American Woodcock Society