Pennsylvania hunters should see an outstanding grouse season, by all indications except one -- the absence of grouse.
As the first leg of a three-part split season opens this weekend, the Pennsylvania Game Commission's go-to person on ruffed grouse said spring research and summer sightings don't add up, resulting in a recent advisory that grouse hunting was expected to be "slightly below average."
"Conditions were good in winter and spring, with a lot of early reports of plenty of broods by June 1. Then as summer came, our people in the field were filing reports saying [grouse] numbers were down, down, down," said Game Commission grouse and woodcock specialist Lisa Williams. "It didn't make sense. I was scratching my head, because my gut still tells me we should see a lot of grouse out there."
Pennsylvania's official state bird is North America's most widely distributed resident game bird. While the grouse population has declined in the state since 1980, and the number of hunters targeting them is down, more than 100,000 Pennsylvania hunters are expected to harvest 75,000 to 100,000 grouse in the 2012-13 seasons, contributing some $79 million to the state's economy, according to a Game Commission report.
Ruffed grouse can be found in most forested areas. But like the woodcock and song birds with whom they share the thickets, grouse are habitat specialists preferring what Williams called "really thick, gnarly stuff." Serious grouse hunters know they'll have to get physical in grape tangles and dense stands of seedlings and saplings to force an adrenaline-inducing flush.
Pennsylvania Grouse Cooperators -- a group of 314 hard-core grouse hunters who keep track of their hunts and report back to the Game Commission -- documented 1.32 flushes per hour last season, the highest flush rate among neighboring states. But Pennsylvania has been tough on grouse.
"Losses of young forest habitat over the last several decades have been bad news for grouse, woodcock and other species that rely on these habitats," said Ian Gregg, Game Commission Game Bird Section supervisor, in a written statement.
Young forests up to 20 years old dropped from nearly 20 percent of total forest acres in 1980 to a little over 10 percent today.
A 10-year plan for rehabilitating the grouse population adopted in 2011 by the Game Commission fits into the framework of a 2008 North American Ruffed Grouse Conservation Plan developed by the transnational Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. The state plan, cowritten by Williams and Gregg, calls for raising the percentage of young forest acreage to 17.3 percent, which is expected to add 2.75 million acres of young forest growth by 2020. To do that on state game lands, state forests and other public and private lands, the state will have to test new habitat management strategies detailed in the North American plan and tailored to Pennsylvania's unique landscape and mix of forest types.
The decline in grouse populations began to ease in 2004-05, when spotty evidence of reconstituted forest regeneration was reported in some wildlife management units.
"As I look back at deer management since 2000, it really does kind of fit that as deer were brought into better balance [with habitat], species that like new growth would benefit," said Williams. "But I'm not sure we have the data to say that yet."
This year's unusually mild winter and spring created ideal conditions for grouse. Broods were plentiful and chick mortality should have been low.
So where are all the grouse?
"I'm not sure, but I have some ideas," Williams said. "Our summer reporting is observational. As our foresters and other people are working on jobs in the field, they keep track of the number of grouse they see. It's not a great method, but typically those numbers are a good indication of what we'll see in the fall."
Unusually dry summer weather may have screwed up the count.
"A drier summer could have led the grouse to pull back into wetter, more lush areas where there were plenty of green leaves -- we call it 'salad' -- where our people couldn't see them," she said. "I think the [summer] numbers being down has more to do with the survey than with the actual population. My gut -- and that's all it is -- tells me this is going to be a good season. The grouse will tell us what's what."