As a boy growing up in the shadow of North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest, Steve Henson fondly recalls the days when he would follow his uncles through the woods in search of grouse. The 58-year-old North Carolina native wasn’t allowed to carry a gun then — he simply served as “their flush dog and retriever,” a job that kept him busy thanks to an abundance of birds.
Henson continues to hunt the same mountains today, but the grouse just aren’t there anymore. “On a good day,” he says, “I might flush five or six in the same places I’d flush as many as two dozen in the 1970s and 1980s.”
Henson isn’t alone. Grouse hunters everywhere, particularly those who hunt in the Appalachian Mountains, are experiencing the same precipitous decline. Ohio hunters, for example, reported flushing an average of 110 birds per 100 hours of hunting in 1995 but just 34 grouse per 100 hours in 2009, the lowest number ever recorded in the state. The estimated harvest in Virginia fell from 68,000 birds in 1994 to about 9,300 in 2010 — also a record low.
At a Loss for Habitat
Grouse and a host of other bird species — including eastern towhees, prairie warblers, and field sparrows — need what biologists call early-successional forest habitat. But data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey show that 58 percent of birds that rely on early-successional forests are in significant decline.
Early-successional habitat consists of thick, young trees — typically less than 20 years old — and a variety of other growth like grasses, vines, and shrubs that spring up in the years following forest disturbance. Young forests have considerably more food in the form of soft mast like fruit and berries and offer far more nesting and escape cover than mature forests. Small mammals such as snowshoe hares also rely on this type of environment.
However, early-successional habitat is in serious decline due largely to decreased forest disturbance on public lands. Not only are forest managers suppressing fires to prevent damage to private property, timber cutting on national forest land has decreased significantly. What was once a common — and accepted — practice has dwindled to a fraction of its historic levels, creating forests of towering giants and little else. For example, just 3 percent of the 1.8 million acres that make up Virginia’s George Washington and Jefferson National Forests are less than 20 years old.
The Trouble With Logging
Timber cuts require roads, and roads come with a whole host of environmental problems — one reason many conservation groups have opposed logging on public lands. For example, temporary roads are a primary source of erosion and siltation and they encourage illegal ATV activity. Some studies have linked roads to decreased big game populations. They can also be an entry point for invasive plant species that hitch a ride on incoming vehicles.
To prevent such problems, most logging companies voluntarily follow best management practices designed to protect soil and water quality by reducing erosion caused by harvesting trees. The U.S. Forest Service requires even stricter protective measures for logging on public land. Forest managers are often required to conduct environmental impact statements, and logging activity is dictated by rules designed to protect the surrounding forest and streams.
Even with those safeguards, large-scale commercial timber harvest creates an ugly eyesore on an otherwise pristine view, says David Maywhoor, Executive Director of the Buckeye Forest Council, a grassroots group dedicated to protecting Ohio’s forests. Immediately after logging, the remains of tree tops and the drab browns and grays of a clear-cut do indeed stand out against the emerald green of a mature forest. Such images are often used by groups that want to block timber sales on public lands.
What those groups don’t show, says Steve Henson, a certified forester, are those same areas in the years following timber harvest. “It doesn’t take long for new growth to come up. In a year or less, the whole area will be green again, and in just a few years it can be full of wildlife,” says Henson, who is also the Executive Director of the Southern Appalachian Multiple-Use Council.
In this type of debate, can one side be “right”? Studies show that new habitat created by clear-cutting has greater species diversity than older, even-aged forests. Scientists at the U.S. Forest Service’s Southern Research Station found that young forests produced up to 20 times more soft mast — fleshy fruits and berries that can be an important source of food for a variety of wildlife — than mature forests. Other research shows that young forests have higher insect production — again, a source of food for wildlife.
As an ardent defender of public forests in Ohio, Mayhoor has actively fought efforts to cut timber on federal and state lands through lawsuits, public protests, and other means. He says the forests are doing just fine without additional human intervention. “If you look at Ohio from above, you’ll see a patchwork of habitats. We have no shortage of edge habitat and there is plenty of timber cutting on private land,” says Maywhoor. “We need to think about hikers and campers who enjoy our public forests, not just hunters.”
The Forgotten Voice?
Hunters do matter, insists Mark Banker, a former Ruffed Grouse Society regional biologist who now works for The American Chestnut Foundation. Although the majority of hunting in the eastern United States takes place on private property, large tracts of state and federal land provide important public hunting opportunities. Hunters are one of the largest national forest user groups, ranking fourth behind hikers, scenic viewers, and downhill skiers in the Forest Service’s 2009 National Visitor Use Monitoring Survey. Hunters are a driving force for local economies, outspending every national forest user group except skiers and snowmobilers, according to a 2006 Forest Service report. Hunters and anglers are also the primary funding source for state fish and wildlife agencies, which manage not only game species but non-game species and their habitats as well. As game populations fall, so do hunter numbers.
“We aren’t just talking about grouse or deer or woodcock,” says Banker. “As we lose hunters, we lose the primary funding source for game and non-game conservation.”
Georgia Forest Watch Executive Director Wayne Jenkins, however, wonders why wildlife managers and hunters insist on creating wildlife habitat when nature is creating habitat on its own. “When a tree dies of old age and falls over, young trees grow in its place. Now that our forests are aging, we will continue to see a natural cycle of young trees replacing older trees as they die at a faster rate,” says Jenkins. “We also get forest openings from natural events like wind and ice storms and even from insects.”
Those don’t happen often enough, nor on a large enough scale, says Banker. Although most of the east’s land base is in private hands, land ownership is changing as large tracts are divided and divided again. Smaller landowners are less likely to include timber management on their property. That’s why the Ruffed Grouse Society and others want to see more cutting on public land. However, they insist they aren’t asking for wholesale clear-cutting of national forests, nor do they want to cut designated wilderness or old-growth areas. Banker, for example, would like to see an increase in timber harvest of 10 or even 15 percent — a number that he says won’t harm wildlife species that depend on mature forest habitats.
“There is a gradual shift in belief even among the scientific community that cutting some trees is actually good for our forests,” says Henson. “I think environmentalists will eventually understand that we need active timber management. If they don’t, grouse and other early-successional species have a pretty bleak future.”
Should public forest managers actively create and maintain early-successional forests, or should wildlife like ruffed grouse that rely on this habitat be allowed to continue to decrease in numbers? As species like snowshoe hare drop in numbers, larger predators that rely on these animals for food will also be affected. And whether it’s ruffed grouse to hunt or prairie warblers to watch, a decrease in wildlife that depends on early-successional habitat means fewer outdoorsmen and women will be able to enjoy their outdoor pursuits on public lands.