- The ruffed grouse has had a long run of bad luck in Missouri, but time is still turning.
- The father of modern wildlife management spent time here documenting the bird’s decline.
By Jim Low
In 1886, legendary trap shooter A.H. Bogardus reported shooting 50 ruffed grouse as a diversion, while spending most of his time chasing turkeys in Clinton County, north of Kansas City. In 1918, an observer reported seeing 30 “partridges” a day in Oregon County in the heart of the Missouri Ozarks.
The next year, he could find none. The story was much the same in other parts of the north-central United States, as documented by no less an authority than Aldo Leopold.
The man who would become the father of scientific wildlife management spent part of 1928 and 1929 crisscrossing a huge triangular area defined by Ohio, Minnesota and Missouri. He focused on the current and historic abundance of bobwhite quail, cottontail rabbits, ringneck pheasants, prairie chickens, wild turkeys, waterfowl and white-tailed deer. His sources included direct observation, popular hunting literature and interviews with hunters and landowners. The resulting Game Survey of the North Central States was commissioned by the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute. It was an early example of how hunting and the industry that supported it would put up the cash to make conservation a reality.
A hardbound copy of Leopold’s report occupies a reverential place on my bookshelf, thanks to my alert and indulgent wife who spied it in an antique shop. For the princely sum of $15, I acquired a window into conservation history. I had occasion to take it down today after reading through a report by Jason Isabelle, a resource scientist with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
The report was intended to update the Missouri Conservation Commission on a collaboration with the Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation. The report documents Missouri’s stubborn refusal to give up on a magnificent game bird that has continued to hold a place in Show-Me State hunters’ hearts and imaginations, long after it lost its place on our landscape.
Leopold’s work showed that ruffed grouse once occupied all but Missouri’s southwestern and northwestern counties. Although Missouri was at the far southwestern edge of the species’ original range, the plucky little birds were locally abundant wherever there was forest. Until the 1920s, that was most of the state. Ruffed grouse probably benefitted from early settlement. Their habitat requirements include impenetrable thickets that spring up when tracts of hardwood forest are logged off and then allowed to regenerate naturally. A patchwork of mature forest interspersed with regenerating clear-cuts of various ages is what “ruffs” need. Logging only becomes the enemy of ruffed grouse when cut-over land is converted to row crops or pasture.
That worked to the ruff’s advantage throughout the 19th century. Settlers and city dwellers alike used wood to heat their homes, and farmers needed pole timber for fence posts. Annual timber harvested guaranteed the renewal of habitat for grouse, not to mention quail and rabbits.
Then things changed. Leopold made a perceptive connection between the fate of ruffed grouse and America’s transition from renewable to fossil fuels when he wrote, “Petroleum, coal, and steel are rapidly making the woodlot a useless appendage to the farm, which must be grazed ‘grouseless’ to pay its keep. Sportsmen should realize that a wood-burning gas plant for farms, or even an efficient wood-burning furnace, would do more to keep woodlots, and hence, grouse, on the map of rural America than many new laws or sermons on conservation.”
Of course, that was not in the cards. Progress proceeded apace and continues today. The 19th century’s patch-quilt of forest, regenerating clear-cuts, crop fields and pastures has disappeared. In the northern half of Missouri, it has been replaced by mega-farms where corn and soybeans extend as far as the eye can see, unbroken by fence or woodlot. In southern Missouri, we increasingly have unbroken tracts of forest. Most Missourians are unaware that their state currently has significantly more forest acreage than it did before European settlement. And since clearcutting became a dirty word, the supply of prime grouse habitat where hunters can experience the thrill of the ruff’s explosive flush, has steadily dwindled.
But Missouri’s state motto isn’t purely negative. Citizen conservationists – hunters once again – have always taken the attitude that someone has to show them that the ruffed grouse can’t be brought back. Next week, we will look at Missouri’s long – and continuing – history of grouse restoration efforts.