Spring in the Southern Appalachians is truly awe-inspiring. Looking out over the Southern Appalachian landscape from the Blue Ridge Parkway, one sees a beautiful landscape of rolling hills and vibrant green forests as far as the eye can see. The lush, closed canopy forests that dominate the region’s public lands are no doubt aesthetically beautiful, but they lack diverse forest habitat that many forest wildlife depend upon.
In December 2020, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ (AFWA) Eastern Grouse Working Group released a report highlighting that
ruffed grouse populations have declined by 71% since 1989 in the Southern Appalachians.
The primary reason for this is a lack of forest habitat diversity at large scales, especially the loss of young forests from the landscape.
Ruffed grouse are not the only forest bird in rapid decline. Across the Appalachian region, trend data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey shows that annual rate of decline include -2.1% for eastern whip-poor-will, -1.3% for American woodcock, -1.1% for wood thrush, -6.3% for golden-winged warbler, and -2% for cerulean warbler, just to name a few.
National Forests in the Southern Appalachians historically provided quality habitat for ruffed grouse and other forest wildlife.
However, today’s public forests have departed from healthy conditions and lack the habitat diversity that once sustained abundant wildlife populations.
For millennia, humans (Native Americans, and then early European settlers) in the Southern Appalachians created and maintained forests that were more open and structurally diverse than today’s forests by clearing forestland for cultivation and settlements, frequent burning, and old field abandonment. Non-human natural disturbances such as severe weather, lighting-ignited fire, southern pine beetle, and keystone wildlife species that are now extinct (e.g., elk and bison) also contributed towards forest habitat diversity. The diverse forest structure and age-classes of the past provided ideal habitat for abundant wildlife populations.
Between 1900 and 1930, most forests in the Southern Appalachians were cleared during a period of heavy cutting, followed by intensive wildfires sparked by steam engine locomotives and heavy loads of forest fuels. By the 1930’s, practically all Southern Appalachian forests had been cut or burned. Today’s Appalachian forests are even-aged, second-growth forests that grew back after this period of widespread forest land clearing.
Most forests in the Southern Appalachians are 80-120 years old, as they all grew back around the same time (see Figure 1).
The lack of young forests, old forests, and structurally diverse forests, and the dominance of middle-aged closed forests, is the primary driver of decline for many forest wildlife species.
For example, National Forests in the Southern Appalachians contain only 1.3% young forests (0-20 years), whereas 8-12% young forests would be ideal for bird diversity.
In addition to forest age, the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests completed an ecological departure analysis in their recent Draft Forest Plan to measure departure in terms of forest structure. The analysis identified that only 1% of the Forests are young forests, 1.6% are open woodlands, and 9% are old-growth forests. The Forests’ analysis also identified that desired conditions would consist of 6-9% young forests, 41-53% open woodlands, and 35-46% old growth forests.
The habitat needs of this landscape are immense, and active habitat restoration is not happening at the pace and scale that is needed.
We must take immediate action on National Forests in the Southern Appalachians to prevent the extirpation of ruffed grouse and other at-risk wildlife species. Otherwise, we will all lose the opportunity to experience them.