Show Me the Grouse!

  • Part 2 of 2
  • Missouri hasn’t given up on this native game bird.
  • Grouse need old and young forest to thrive and that means cutting trees.

By Jim Low

Thrup! Thrup-thrup! Thrup-thrup, thrup-thrup-thrupthrupthrupthrupthrup!!!

Ruffed Grouse Drumming – The sound of a ruffed grouse drumming to attract a mate has been absent from most of Missouri for the better part of a century. The Missouri Department of Conservation hopes to change that. Jim Low Photo

Goose bumps roughened my arms and a chill crept up my spine.  I continued to listen to what could have been someone trying to start a balky pickup truck on a distant hilltop.  But it wasn’t a pickup, and it wasn’t in the distance.

A scant 100 yards uphill from where I sat in the growing dawn, a handsome brown and black bird strutted atop a fallen tree trunk.  Every couple of minutes, he stopped, threw out his chest and beat his wings to a percussive crescendo, hoping to attract the attention of a mate.  It was thrilling evidence that the ruffed grouse was back in the Ozarks.

This was in the 1980s, and although grouse restoration was new to me, it was anything but new to Missouri.  The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) had been trying to bring back this native game bird since the 1940s, but in the last quarter of the 20th century, MDC made a strong effort to re-establish the species in the Show-Me State, bringing in cocks and hens from the Upper Midwest.  They were released in the central Ozarks, north-central and east-central Missouri.  By the mid-1990s, more than 4,500 grouse had been released in areas thought to have the combination of old, young and middle-aged forest that grouse need to thrive.

Initial results were encouraging.

The birds seemed to be multiplying.  The MDC eventually approved a limited grouse hunting season and expanded it in the late 1980s, but then, what once seemed success gradually turned to failure.  In Missouri, as in other states at the southern edge of the species range, grouse numbers declined.  Acting on advice from hunters and biologists alike, the Conservation Commission closed Missouri’s grouse season in 2010.  Lack of suitable habitat was cited as the cause of the decline.

“Ruffed grouse need a mosaic of old and young forests to prosper,” said MDC Resource Scientist Jason Isabelle.  “They need areas where timber harvests or storms have removed or killed all the trees, creating early-successional forest habitat.  They just can’t survive without scattered areas of disturbance in a larger forest setting.  Over the course of the last several decades, the amount of young forest habitat has declined substantially throughout the southern portion of the ruffed grouse’s range.”

Small remnant pockets of grouse survived in a few of the original restoration areas, including the wooded hills just north of the Missouri River in east-central Missouri.

When the Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation (QUWF) persuaded MDC to revisit the idea of grouse restoration, their attention turned to this area.  Working with QUWF and the USDA Forest Service, MDC conducted an analysis of habitat in the river hills region in Callaway, Montgomery and Warren counties.

One of the things the River Hills Conservation Opportunity Area has going for it, in terms of grouse habitat, is several Conservation Areas (CAs) totaling more than 20,000 acres.  Using cutting-edge technology, MDC was able to quantify habitat variables on this large acreage at a level of detail that had never been possible before.

Light detection and ranging (LIDAR) was the key.  LIDAR uses airborne lasers and global positioning system (GPS) technology to identify vegetation type and height and map its extent.  This, along with ground surveys of remnant populations, showed what habitat the birds were using, and enabled MDC to focus on producing more of it.  That work will take place on the Grouse Focus Area consisting of Little Lost Creek and Daniel Boone CAs, and on nearby private land included in the larger Grouse Emphasis Area.  MDC will provide assistance to landowners who are interested in creating grouse habitat on their property.

Isabelle and other MDC biologists concluded that a renewed reintroduction program in the River Hills area was not likely to succeed with habit that existed there in 2013.  However, they believed that grouse restoration could take hold at Little Lost Creek and Daniel Boone CAs if they could increase the amount of high-quality grouse habitat there by 20 to 25 percent.  With that goal in mind, MDC set out to create the conditions needed to bring grouse – and eventually grouse hunting – back to Missouri.

MDC has long understood that small, even-age timber harvests create conditions critical to the survival of a wide range of wildlife that depends on “edge” habitat.  Species from wild turkeys and songbirds to chipmunks and lizards thrive in the wake of such “even-age” timber harvests, as lush, diverse vegetation springs up.  Grouse will use regenerating acreage for as long as 25 years following an even-age harvest.  However, usage falls off sharply beyond 15 years.

Some people deplore even-age harvests as “clearcutting.” But decades of experience and a growing body of scientific evidence supports the position that carefully regulated small-scale timber harvests can enhance wildlife diversity without damaging soils or water quality.  The eco-friendly, 10- to 50-acre even-age harvests employed by MDC to enhance wildlife habitat today are very different from the rapacious denuding of hundreds of thousands of acres that devastated the Ozarks at the turn of the 20th century.

MDC has been working to create grouse habitat – hardwood forest regeneration sites – on Little Lost Creek and Daniel Boone CAs since 2015.  At their meeting last month, the Conservation Commission received a report from Isabelle outlining the next steps on Missouri’s renewed grouse restoration program.  By the years 2020 and 2026, Isabelle expects the combined efforts of government agencies and private cooperators to increase the amount of high-quality grouse habitat in the River Hills Focus Area by 23 and 27 percent, respectively.

The plan outlined by Isabelle calls for 120 grouse from donor states in September and October of 2019 and 2020.  Twenty grouse will go to each of three sites on Little Lost Creek CA and three on Daniel Boone CA.  After that, MDC will track the transplanted birds’ progress with roadside surveys of drumming grouse each spring.  If all goes well, these two CAs will become the source for grouse expansion into habitat on surrounding public and private land.

Most Missourians alive today have never heard the thrumming serenade of a ruffed grouse cock.  If MDC and its partners succeed, that could change in our lifetime.  To learn more about how MDC intends to reach that goal, check out the management plan for Little Lost Creek CA.

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