Wolfe Publishing Group

    Tackling Ruffed Grouse Habitat in Southern Appalachia

    Steeped in history and rich with grouse hunting culture, the Southern Appalachian Mountains have long been associated with ruffed grouse habitat. Landowners and hunters in this area may fondly recall hunting ruffed grouse in the area many years ago, but have noticed their growing absence and watched prime grouse habitat disappear. This has spurred a real sense of urgency for Ruffed Grouse Society and American Woodcock Society (RGS & AWS) and its members in this region. In this article, we caught up with Nick Biemiller, Forest Conservation Director for the Southern Appalachian region (GA, KY, NC, SC, TN, and VA) to discuss what’s going on in this neck of the grouse woods.

    Current Conditions in Southern Appalachia

    Most people might think of a tropical jungle when the term biodiversity comes up. But Nick mentioned that the southern Appalachian Mountains are actually one of the most biologically diverse forests in the world. This region contains the highest mountains east of the Mississippi River with varying topography, and supports beautiful oak-hickory, pine, and poplar forests, in addition to fire-dependent savannas and woodlands on drier sites. As with many Eastern locations, the land was subject to clearing activities in the 1920s and 30s, which then triggered many high-intensity wildfires. Consequently, most forests started regenerating roughly at the same time, and are now closed-canopy and single aged – essentially a monoculture of mature trees.

    Challenges for Ruffed Grouse Habitat in This Region

    By far, the biggest challenge facing many forestry professionals and wildlife managers alike in this region is garnering more public support for active management of public lands. There’s a major preservationist attitude when it comes to mountain landscapes covered in mature stately trees. There’s no doubt, it can be breathtaking to view, which means people don’t like to see “destructive” forestry operations. But mature forest monocultures don’t offer diverse habitat types and structure for wildlife. With more advocacy, it’s possible to show the value of forestry to wildlife species, in this region and elsewhere.

    Another challenge in this area is the capacity to get forestry work done. Without enough loggers, equipment, trucks, and mills, forestry work can’t happen. The steep and remote landscape can be a challenge in some locations as well. While Nick commented that the hardwood sawtimber market is generally good overall in his region, the pulpwood market is lacking a bit. As a result, high value timber might be removed first, leaving a forest of lower value species or smaller diameter trees behind. This high-grading (i.e., “take the best and leave the rest”) can be an unintended consequence in such a scenario, although any good modern forester will be mindful to avoid that practice.

    There is a potential opportunity that is somewhat unique to this region, however. Kentucky is obviously known for its bourbon, and a key requirement for bourbon is that it be aged in new charred barrels constructed from white oak staves. As a result, white oak trees can be very high value for landowners and contractors, and may encourage forestry work in the area.

    Looking to Wildlife Science

    With all the discussion surrounding our new Model of Working Forests, it’s important to reiterate that RGS & AWS has been and remains a science-based organization that keeps open and young forest wildlife species, including ruffed grouse and American woodcock, in mind. Early successional bird species, in particular, are in decline in many Eastern locales due to a lack of early successional habitat. But it’s not about simply clearcutting everything, far from it. RGS & AWS supports active forest management to provide a diverse range of habitat types and successional stages to benefit numerous wildlife species across the country. Nick provided a great example of this.

    Maybe a full harvest/clearcut is not yet economical for a landowner because the trees haven’t reached the right size and diameter, but the region is really lacking young forest habitat. A thinning cut might increase the health and vigor of dominant trees and create more open forest conditions to benefit a suite of open forest wildlife species (e.g., cerulean warbler or eastern whip-poor-will). The thinning would also accelerate the forest’s development to reach the right size and diameter so that in the near future, an overstory removal harvest would make commercial sense, thus creating forest conditions that benefit young forest wildlife species. There aren’t blanket prescriptions for forestry across the landscape. Instead, the Forest Conservation Directors are taking into consideration what’s best for the wildlife species and the health of the forest to target strategic places for forestry work to occur. So in that sense, the silvicultural rotations are a constantly shifting mosaic on the landscape, which is what many species (such as ruffed grouse) need.

    Ongoing and Future Projects

    Fortunately, RGS & AWS has been working very hard to build a conservation network in this region to multiply the effects of this grouse habitat work. This network includes individuals from federal and state wildlife and forestry agencies, the forest industry and many other organizations. Here are a few of the projects, partnerships, grant programs or agreements that are currently ongoing or set to begin soon in this region.

    * RGS & AWS staff are currently drafting agreements with the U.S. Forest Service on multiple levels, including establishing Stewardship Agreements, Participating Agreements, Challenge Cost Share Agreements, or Joint Chiefs Funding Proposals for RGS & AWS to oversee timber projects or collaborate on habitat enhancements on the Cherokee, Daniel Boone, George Washington-Jefferson, Chattahoochee-Oconee and Nantahala-Pisgah National Forests.

    * RGS & AWS is developing novel agreements with forest industry partners to create financial incentives for Stewardship Projects with National Forests in the region. Without the funding, forestry work is tough to promote.

    * Besides the partners listed above, RGS & AWS is also proposing to work with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, The Nature Conservancy, American Bird Conservancy, and universities to support more public and private lands forest management operations, with the goal of creating more habitat for open and young forest wildlife species.

    And of course, Nick also mentioned the support from local chapter members and supporters. Without engaged and passionate members, this mission would not be possible. But with the right partnerships, cooperation, and public support, perhaps hunters in this area will again find it common to experience the thrill of flushing grouse in the Southern Appalachia region.

    Wolfe Publishing Group