Mon Forest District Ranger – Status of the Planned Grouse Management Area
Recently, I have been getting a lot of questions about what is happening in our Grouse Management Area. Because I know there is so much interest in this project, I thought I would share a quick update. On the Monongahela National Forest, our forest is divided into different management prescriptions. These prescriptions provide direction on how that particular area should be managed. For example, we have areas that are managed for spruce and spruce hardwood restoration. Areas that are managed as wilderness or for their scenic values. Areas that are managed for vegetation diversity. And, we have two areas that are specifically to be managed to create and maintain habitat suitable for ruffed grouse. One of these areas is the Brushy Mountain Grouse Area located on the Marlinton/White Sulphur Ranger District just a few miles northeast of White Sulphur Springs. Although this is the largest of the two grouse management areas on the Forest, it is only 6,830 acres. That may sound like a large area, but of our almost 1 million acres, this grouse management area is less than 1% of the forest that we manage.
To date, we have not implemented any projects in this area to help us accomplish the goal of creating habitat for the grouse. We have been working for several years to develop a potential project and I am happy to say that we are getting close to finalizing our analysis of our first project and being able to implement the project hopefully next year.
The ruffed grouse uses mature forest stands for feeding on buds and catkins, the species also uses dense young growth for cover and for habitat when they are raising their broods. The ideal recipe for grouse is an area where you have mature forest, but you have at least 20 to 30% of that area in young forest. Ruffed grouse thrive best where you keep forests young and vigorous by using occasional timber harvest or prescribed fire. They gradually diminish in numbers as that forest matures and their critical food and cover resources start to get shaded out by a more mature forest. Since the quality of grouse cover declines 15-20 years following disturbance, you have to go back into an area and continually create that type of habitat if you’re going to maintain grouse in the long-term.
Throughout the eastern United States, including West Virginia, ruffed grouse populations have declined dramatically since the 1950s. Not surprising, the primary cause of the grouse population decline is believed to be the loss of habitat, specifically a lack of young forests.
So, the project we are working on is an important first step to be able to provide habitat for the ruffed grouse, as well as other songbirds and mammals that need young forests. The Brushy Mountain Ruffed Grouse Project will be focused on two main tools. The first will be removal of trees and the second prescribed burning. Reduced fire activity in our forests during the last 100 years has really changed what our forests look like. We’ve lost some of our dominant tree species like oak and hickory and we’ve started to see some new species come in. And when your canopy of your forest closes, your oaks and hickories don’t do as well and they can’t grow up in the darkness of that canopy.
Having open and brushy habitat is important because it provides nesting areas, feeding areas as well as cover for ruffed grouse, turkey, yellow-breasted chats, and other species. So reintroducing fire into the project area will be able to improve habitat by creating more structure in the canopy and by giving oak and hickory seedlings an advantage. Lastly, prescribed burning will create more snags and will also create some downed wood on the project area floor that’ll also improve habitat for wildlife. So in total, this project involves about 831 acres of prescribed burning. In addition, we will be harvesting about 300 acres. A small commercial harvest will cover a portion of these acres, but in some places, trees will be left on site and made available to the public as firewood.
Now, you may be thinking, I am not a grouse hunter so why do I care about this project. Well there are a couple of reasons. First of all, young forests support much more than grouse. They also support a number of songbirds (like the yellow-breasted chat) and mammals. So, having young forests across the landscape is extremely important for a whole host of species.
Also, whether you are a hunter, a birder, or a naturalist, ruffed grouse are just really cool. The bird is named for the ruff of blackish feathers on the sides of the neck, larger in the male, which may be flared out when the bird is agitated. During the spring and latter part of fall, the ruffed grouse can also be heard drumming from different parts of the wood as it defends its territory or tries to court the ladies. The sound is unmistakably apart of the Appalachian forest. And, this species is not doing well. Recent modeling done by the Audubon Society projects that ruffed grouse could lose 34% more of their breeding range by the year 2080.
So, as conservationists and land managers, we have a duty to do what we can to provide healthy habitat for this species. The Brushy Mountain Grouse Project is a first small step to helping this species, but we will need to develop more projects in the future.
I would like to thank everyone who provided input and feedback to help us design this project, especially the WV Division of Natural Resources, the ruffed grouse society, and the wild turkey federation. Together, we will are working towards healthy forests and healthy wildlife. For Allegheny Mountain Radio, this is District Ranger Cynthia Sandeno, wishing you a Merry Christmas and a happy new year spent exploring your public lands.