Area not a habitat for grouse

I have seriously grouse hunted only once in my life. This was back about 1985 with a person I worked with at the old Memorial General Hospital who was a big-time ruffed grouse hunter.

My friend had a beautiful bird dog that was good at flushing the birds out of the brush. On this particular outing, my friend was able to get one grouse, but another hunting companion and I went home skunked.

I have only bagged three ruffed grouse in all of my years of sport hunting. This was while I would be squirrel hunting when I would come upon a grouse at the edge of the woods where I was hunting for the bushy-tails.

Grouse often startle me with their noisy take-off. I have taken one on the wing with a twenty-gauge shotgun. The other two I got using my favorite .22 squirrel rifle when they were sitting on the ground.

I have often stated that Randolph County is nowhere near to being prime ruffed grouse habitat. After all, this is one of the many rural countries in West Virginia that is at least 85 percent mature forested land. Ruffed grouse prefer young forest growth with plenty of underbrush for cover. This gives them the protection they need from predators and the weather.

Today, it is not clear just how many ruffed grouse there may be in West Virginia. However, just ask any wild game bird biologist or any grouse hunting enthusiast, and they will be quick to say that the grouse population in this state has severely declined in the past 20-30 years. The big question is, “Where did the grouse go?”

Our neighboring state of Pennsylvania has done some of its own research that ties the decline to some kind of wildlife disease. The game biologists in West Virginia say there is little evidence that supports this theory. For the most part, our game biologists seem to think that habitat change is the leading cause for the grouse population declining. To a large extent, I can agree with this.

In the year 1900, or the turn of the 20th century, there were more than 50,000 farms that covered more than 60 percent of the state. In the next 50 years, people started moving away from the farms for urban areas. This left many rural areas with young forests with plenty of underbrush. These conditions were perfect for ruffed grouse to live, nest and reproduce.

Today, these young forests are now mature forests, which is the wrong kind of habitat for ruffed grouse. Mature forests just don’t provide the protection that grouse need to live.

One way to possibly reverse this situation is better forest management. For example, less than 1 percent of the Monongahela National Forest is now made up of young forest growth. If this could be increased to 10-20 percent, there could be a rebound in the grouse population in this area. Conservation technology has advanced to the point to where we can have a balance between preserving big old trees for future generations and at the same time create areas where nature can simply run its course.

We must remember that approximately 80 percent of West Virginia’s land is privately owned. Here is where landowners are going to have to do their part with better forest management. The conservation efforts on public acreage can only do so much. Using applied conservation science, it is possible to create quality habitat for ruffed grouse and just about all of West Virginia’s game animals.

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I need to correct an error that was in last week’s column. I incorrectly reported that Stonecoal Lake was in Monongalia County. Stonecoal Lake is in Lewis and Upshur counties. It is the Cheat Lake in Monongalia County that is going to receive some of the donated Christmas trees for the improvement of fish habitat.

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