By: Brian Stone PHD
Indiana’s native bird populations are in trouble. Several species are declining, and US Forest Service proposals to address the issue in the Hoosier National Forest have been met with resistance. Most recently, federal legislation known as the Benjamin Harrison National Recreation Area and Wilderness Establishment Act (S. 2990) has been introduced by Senator Mike Braun (R-IN) to create a wilderness designation comprising for approximately 15,300 acres of disconnected sections of the Hoosier NF that will prevent necessary management activities and further imperil native species and their habitat.
In December of 2020, the Indiana Ruffed Grouse was listed as state-endangered. 18 states currently list the Ruffed Grouse as a species of greatest conservation need, so Indiana represents a concerning trend. This amazing bird is the “bellwether of forest health,” and their decline indicates trouble ahead for all wildlife.
Ruffed Grouse numbers have fluctuated greatly with changing land use, from decline due to overexploitation of timberlands and agricultural land use in the 19th century, to increases due to the abandonment of farmland following the great depression. In 1983, grouse numbers in Indiana soared and reached numbers not seen since the Civil War, but by 2008 wildlife biologists noted a serious, shocking decline. For the last 40 years their population levels have steadily declined. By 2010, their numbers were less than 2% of levels recorded during the peak years of 1979-1981, and they had disappeared from 15 counties in the state.
And it’s not just the grouse. Several songbird species are also endangered, including the Golden-winged Warbler and the Cerulean Warbler. On the list of Indiana’s species of greatest conservation need, several game- and songbirds are listed as species of special concern, including the Black-billed Cuckoo, Eastern Whip-poor-will, American Woodcock, Northern Bobwhite, and several Warblers. One thing these species all share in common is that they rely on young forest habitat, a rapidly declining habitat-type not prioritized by a handful of environmental groups whose sole focus is mature forests.
In 2018, the management plan known as the “USFS Houston South Vegetation Management and Restoration Project” was introduced. As part of this plan, the USFS proposes vegetation management activities to improve the health of the oak-hickory ecosystems and wildlife habitat in 13,533 acres of the Hoosier NF encompassing the activity center of the grouse survey route, along with 9,830 acres of non-Forest Service lands. This area is currently dominated by mature forest, including vast non-native white pine plantations and native beech-maple stands. These mature and non-native forests create a “habitat desert” and imperil native wildlife. The USFS plan includes removing non-native stands of white pine and mature beech and maple trees in order to allow light to reach the forest floor and allow native oak and hickory to have a fighting chance. In other areas, selection harvests will be used that may favor beech-maple. Forest regeneration and the creation of woodland meadows is necessary for these species to survive. The wilderness designation would limit some of the proposed management activities from going forward, and the proposed National Recreation Area (NRA) encompasses the Houston South area. How an NRA designation will affect management remains to be seen as it would be under the direction of an advisory committee rather than the Forest Service.
Young forests were once created by natural destructive events like tornados, fires, and insect infestations that created openings in the forest canopy. For 12,000 years, Native American management of forests also promoted the growth of young forests. Such events were essential to biodiversity and the health of ecosystems as young forests (which biologists refer to as early-successional) are rich in insects, berries, and seeds, and they provide valuable nesting and brood cover for many species. However, due to habitat fragmentation and loss, natural disturbances no longer act with the same intensity or frequency as they used to in order to create early-successional ecosystems. Oak and hickory trees that provide mast-acorns and nuts for wildlife and host hundreds of caterpillar species that are a primary food source for nesting songbirds are aging and dying out. Young forests also provide nesting habitat and cover that a variety of species rely on, including young mammals and invertebrates, and these are rapidly disappearing. Due to the thickness of the beech-maple canopy, oak and hickory trees are being replaced by shade-resistant maple and beech saplings. This is why timber management is necessary; the habitat these species rely on has all but disappeared from the Hoosier NF.
Along with the game- and songbirds mentioned above, Indiana’s bats are also at risk if forest management activities are prevented from going forward, despite suggestions by some groups that the USFS plan will harm them. Indiana’s bats are already in danger due to “White Nose Syndrome,” a disease that threatens bat populations. The Indiana Bat, the Gray Bat, along with five other species, are already listed as state-endangered in Indiana, and four other species are listed as species of special concern. Though the Indiana Bat can be found throughout the eastern US, a majority of them hibernate in southern Indiana. The population of the Indiana Bat has dropped by half since 1967, and a major contributing factor is habitat loss due to the disappearance of young forests.
Joy O’Keefe, a bat biologist at the University of Illinois (formerly at Indiana State University) and project investigator on the 100-Year “Hardwood Ecosystem Experiment” (HEE) in southern Indiana’s Morgan Monroe State Forest (a research project also opposed by the environmental group behind the current issue), notes that Indiana Bats roost and colonize large dead or dying trees, but primarily oaks and hickories. Decades of forest science research shows that maples are rarely used for roosting, and there is no record of a beech tree ever being used. In the Hoosier NF, shade resistant beech-maple forests have taken over the native oak-hickory stands, and without forest management the bats may no longer have a place to raise their young and hibernate. Indiana Bats also require an open canopy so that sunlight can reach the roost site to warm their pups, and forests with trees of a variety of ages are most suitable.
Though one might think that disturbance of forest habitat would prove more detrimental to bats, forest managers must follow US Fish and Wildlife regulations for management practices. The Houston South project managers consulted with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in order to ensure that the management plan would not imperil bats. Such approval requires an extensive process and the US Fish and Wildlife Service then allows a certain number of acres to be treated each summer. What’s more, researchers have found that Indiana Bats selectively forage and roost in prescribed burn and recently cut forest areas. These policies and this science provides the foundation for the USFS Houston South management project in the Hoosier, science that those who oppose the project dismiss.
Senator Braun’s legislation has yet to be considered by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, which it must do before advancing. In total it would expand the Charles C. Deam Wilderness in Monroe and Brown counties to about 28,000 acres, and designate another roughly 30,000 acres of adjacent land for a proposed National Recreation Area. However, these acres are not contiguous and the designation is a poorly disguised attempt to stop the Houston South management plan in its tracks. The Hoosier NF is a gem that deserves protection, but a wilderness designation would block management activities as outlined above. Under this proposed legislation, zero dollars will be allocated for additional land acquisition to add new public lands to the Hoosier NF and zero dollars will be allocated to increase funding for the rising costs of managing the Hoosier NF.
A wilderness designation is intended to protect landscape-scale habitat and restricts active land management. Considering the prevalence of non-native trees that have created a habitat desert in the Hoosier NF, this particular designation would prove detrimental to the Ruffed Grouse, numerous songbirds, and the bat species discussed above. Such a designation is ideal for areas that are already biologically diverse and in which native trees and plants are firmly established, and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers often supports them. However, in this case, such a move dismisses well-established science and would do far more harm than good for Indiana’s wildlife. We support science-based forest management that supports biodiverse ecosystems and benefits wildlife.
Birders, hunters, and those who enjoy the diversity of wildlife they experience while visiting the Hoosier NF should be concerned, and if you want to help ensure we Hoosiers do all we can to protect our wildlife, reach out to Senator Braun and your representatives to let them know you oppose expanding the wilderness designation and the creation of a National Recreation Area in the Hoosier NF. We are all public land owners, entrusted as stewards of our national forests for generations to come, and your voice matters.