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.

-end-

Aldo Leopold would say, “START GROUSING!”

  • 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.
A hardbound copy of Leopold’s grouse report occupies a reverential place on my bookshelf, thanks to my alert and indulgent wife who spied it in an antique shop. Jim Low Photo

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.

Leopold’s work showed that ruffed grouse once occupied all but Missouri’s southwestern and northwestern counties.  Jim Low Photo

 

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.

The LEGEND of the Leopold Map shown above provides interesting insight into Leopold’s findings. Jim Low Photo

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.

-end-

NO SUNDAY BAY

  • Where there are no fish. 
  • Where you won’t catch the largest smallmouth of your life.
Trip leader, Tim Mead, leads a scrappy smallmouth to the boat. Jim Low Photo

By Jim Low
“There is no Sunday Bay,” intoned Tim Mead as he loaded the last huge pack into a Kevlar rental canoe. “If there is a Sunday Bay, it has no fish. If it does have fish, they won’t bite, and if they do bite, they are all small.”
He turned and looked expectantly at the rest of his party. The three of us nodded in solemn agreement and off we went.
Having been here every summer for the past 30 years, Tim took the stern seat in the lead canoe, a compass and a detailed map of Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park perched on the gear in front of him.
For the first hour and half of paddling, we occasionally heard and saw a motor boat near the American shore to our south. Then we rounded a spruce-clad point, and the motorized world disappeared.
For the next two days, the only human voices, or other sounds of civilization, we would hear were our own voices and the hiss of a Jetboil stove.

A big female snapping turtle visited us off and on for two days, trying to find a spot to lay her eggs. Jim Low Photo

We would be serenaded by loons and challenged by eagles.
We would receive multiple visits from a large and determined snapping turtle bent on laying eggs and we would catch more 3- to 5-pound bass than I ever imagined possible.
We would sleep on the ground, sip tea laced with plum brandy and fall so deeply under the spell of the Canadian boundary waters that going home would hurt.
Technically, our journey began with an 8-mile lift via johnboat to Prairie Portage, on the U.S.-Canadian border. The real adventure commenced after we checked in at the Canadian customs office and launched our two canoes into sprawling Basswood Lake.
Having read Tim’s book, Quetico Adventures, I had a good idea what to expect during our five-day trip. I was prepared for coolish weather (nighttime lows in the 40s), rain, mosquito swarms and living on dehydrated food. I thought I was prepared to encounter amazing fishing, but when the first 20-inch bronzeback darted from the depths to make a pass at my surface plug, all my mental fuses blew.
Before I knew what I was doing, I jerked the plug out of the water and shouted. Well, I shouted something I hoped my paddling partner, Mike Quinn, wouldn’t hold against me. I assume he heard worse during his years in the Navy, but what my swearing lacked in creativity, it made up for with awestruck intensity.
In 50-plus years of chasing smallmouths in Missouri, I had never seen one close to that big. In the next half hour, Mike and I landed or hooked and got good looks at the five biggest smallmouths I had ever seen in person. And we were only an hour into the first day of fishing!

Mike Quinn with a 28-inch Northern Pike.  Jim Low Photo

Over the following four days, we caught bass until our arms ached. Tim caught one largemouth bass whose mouth could comfortably accommodated a softball. He estimated its weight around 8 pounds, not a monster by Southern standards, but not bad for a fish species living outside its original native range and competing with fish their ancestors never had to contend with.
These included northern pike between two and three feet long and smallmouth bass that would have sent their Show-Me State kin dashing for cover. Boundary Waters smallies aren’t just long; they are built like defensive tackles, and they fight like demons, alternately burrowing toward the bottom and executing head-shaking jumps that would do a tarpon proud.
The smallmouth bass here bit with equal verve on everything from plastic grubs to Zara Spooks.
They bit at high noon, and at dusk, and at dawn.