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What’s Ailing Grouse? It’s the Habitat, Stupid!

Whether they’re talking about ruffed grouse with reporters, or reporting to the Natural Resources Board about grouse matters, biologists with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources somehow refrain from shouting: “It’s the habitat, stupid!”


You want more grouse? Create more grouse habitat.


You want healthier grouse? Improve grouse habitat.


You think grouse are too susceptible to owls and hawks? Create younger, thicker and “grousier” habitat.


You think wild turkeys, winter hunts, nonresident hunters, or West Nile virus are imperiling our grouse populations?


Sigh. You need an intervention; perhaps some chainsaw therapy. Visit your nearest Stihl or Husqvarna dealer, buy chaps, a logger’s helmet, and the best chainsaw you can afford, and start cutting.


And take some DNR Board members with you. Don’t stop toppling trees till you sweat and ache away enough forest canopy to let the sunlight bake all those silly notions, band-aid cures, and conspiracy theories from everyone’s heads.


DNR biologists can’t talk that rudely, of course. Still, they did their professional best last week to remind folks that one year’s worth of test data on West Nile virus won’t explain why our 2017 grouse season was unexpectedly subpar and the 2018 season set a modern-day record-low 173,347-bird harvest.


To recap, of the 235 Wisconsin grouse tested for WNV from 2018, 68 (29%) had antibodies to the virus. Hunters in Michigan and Minnesota also submitted grouse for the study, which found WNV antibodies in 28 of 213 Michigan birds (13%) and 34 of 273 Minnesota grouse (12%).


What can we learn from those numbers? Well, 29% of Wisconsin grouse in the test were exposed to the virus and survived; and 71% of them likely weren’t exposed. Likewise, 13% of Michigan grouse and 12% of Minnesota grouse in the test were exposed to WNV and survived, and 87% and 88%, respectively, likely weren’t exposed.


But the tests can’t tell us if or how many grouse died from WNV during spring and summer 2018, or if Wisconsin’s grouse fared better or worse than those in neighboring states. Yes, a higher percentage of Wisconsin grouse tested positive for WNV, but that raises at least three questions:


-- Does that 29% exposure rate mean Wisconsin grouse were hit harder by WNV?


-- Or does it mean our grouse survived at rates over twice as high as grouse in Michigan and Minnesota?


-- Or does it mean Wisconsin’s samples were somehow biased? That seems unlikely, unless Wisconsin’s hunters were more likely to submit grouse that looked thin or sickly.


Mark Witecha, the DNR’s upland bird ecologist, said it’s too soon for answers. “We can’t make conclusions on any of that,” he said. “But I don’t automatically assume it means something worse.”


After all, the 2018 hunt was the first year of this three-year study, and Wisconsin hunters have already snapped up all 500 test kits for the 2019 season.


“It’s not all gloom and doom,” Witecha said. “Some ruffed grouse were exposed to the virus. The ones we tested either didn’t get sick from West Nile virus, or they recovered from it. They’re surviving. The fact 29% came through suggests it’s likely not as virulent as some may have thought. The grouse developed antibodies, and the antibodies are doing their job.


“Once again, it comes down to habitat,” Witecha continued. “The better the birds’ condition when they encounter a stressor, the better their survival chances. Whether the stressor is disease or weather, grouse have a better chance of surviving if they live in good, healthy habitat.”


Meanwhile, if folks are concerned that grouse are under siege from excessive hunting pressure – whether local, down-state or nonresident – they’ll struggle making an objective case from license sales. Wisconsin was providing grouse-hunting recreation to about 160,000 grouse hunters in the late 1980s, but those numbers have since plunged to about 60,000.


An exact number isn’t known because the DNR doesn’t sell a grouse-hunting license. But based on annual surveys of license buyers, including five-day and regular small-game licenses, the DNR estimates Wisconsin hosted 4,500 to 4,600 nonresidents in 2018, or roughly 7.6% of the state’s grouse hunters.


In other words, quit worrying about an imaginary nonresident army bent on vanquishing the Northwoods’ grouse population. Instead, insist our Natural Resources Board entrust science, not personal beliefs, to guide their decisions and directives.


Rather than eliminate three weeks of January grouse hunting, for example, the Board should be asking how we lost 100,000 grouse hunters the past 30 years.


Hint: Study the habitat of southwestern Wisconsin. That’s where you’ll explain much of the decline. Until recent decades, that region provided some of the state’s best grouse hunting, and its birds weren’t as subject to the fickle cycles affecting their Northern-forest cousins.


But land in southwestern counties is mostly privately owned, and many of those landowners balk at timber harvests and consider all clear-cuts bad. Therefore, as those woodlands matured in the late 1900s, grouse numbers shriveled. So did the number of grouse hunters, who once enjoyed easy drives from Madison and Janesville, and even Milwaukee and Racine. Rather than changing course and driving north for four to five hours, they simply quit grouse hunting.


Aging woodlots with scant new growth benefit turkeys, but their open understories make grouse vulnerable to owls, hawks, foxes and coyotes; and their nests easier pickings for skunks, opossums and raccoons.


To get good grouse reproduction, you need about 10% to 15% of a region’s woodlands to be younger than 20 years old. Only about 5% of southwestern Wisconsin fits that description.


It’s hard for one landowner to solve such deficits. But if you want larger and healthier populations of ruffed grouse and white-tailed deer, you must chip in on habitat.


You might not live to enjoy your work’s benefits, but you’ll die knowing you valued solutions, not placebos doled out by a superficial Natural Resources Board.


Ruffed grouse, grouse-hunters and grouse habitat keep declining in Wisconsin while some folks trust falsehoods and easy solutions. -- Patrick Durkin photo

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