By Gabe Karns, Levi Arnold, and Dustin Lindley
In the pantheon of game animals, ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) occupy a unique position. They're a smallish game bird, reclusive and skittish, that occupies a big space in the hearts and thoughts of many hunters - perhaps a bigger space in the minds of their dogs.
In Ohio, there have been significant declines grouse abundance as shown below (source https://ohiodnr.gov/discover-and-learn/animals/birds/ruffed-grouse):
Declining ruffed grouse flushes and drummers in Ohio
Current ruffed grouse range in Ohio
Unfortunately, ongoing data collection was stopped in 2020 with the pandemic, so we have limited data beyond this time. The reasons for the decline in grouse numbers are many, but it's clear that the most critical issue is habitat loss. Grouse rely more than most species on forest disturbance and the early successional habitat that comes from disturbance. For many years, logging in Southeast Ohio (their historical and current range) provided the required brushy cover and early successional forest, but as logging has reduced over the years, that habitat has been more difficult to find. According to the US Forest service “early successional forests are near historic lows and continue to decline across much of eastern North America.” (https://www.fs.usda.gov/research/treesearch/46878) Ohio DNR has recently initiated a ruffed grouse habitat study with OSU professor Dr. Robert Gates and his graduate student Joe Hintz. This study, looking at the suitability of habitat in public forests in Ohio for ruffed grouse is ongoing, with results expected in 2024.
Recently, there has been an effort by members of the Ohio Wildlife Council to eliminate grouse hunting in Ohio (https://www.dispatch.com/story/sports/outdoors/2023/02/26/ohio-wildlife-council-debating-making-grouse-hunting-illegal/69940040007/). This appointed council must approve any new ODNR regulations and changes to existing regulations already on the books. Historically, the Council has largely followed the lead of ODNR biologists’ recommendations, and whether to continue hunting grouse in Ohio is a current topic up for debate.
Grouse numbers are unquestionably down, but it is not hunting that has driven grouse to their current low depressed population numbers – loss of habitat and West Nile Virus are to blame (https://ruffedgrousesociety.org/the-scientific-impact-of-west-nile-on-ruffed-grouse/). The question now is whether to continue to allow grouse hunting? There is a long history of grouse seasons being closed and never reopened (as Illinois, and Indiana, and New Jersey, and Missouri), and it's not been shown that closure of these hunting seasons has had any impact on overall grouse numbers. Typically hunting has been closed well after the population and corresponding hunting pressure are already low.
Another factor is that hunters have been important advocates for the required habitat changes to allow the development of healthy grouse habitat, which is to say healthy wildlife habitat. There are not many grouse hunters in Ohio, but they are very likely to be highly informed, highly active members of the conservation community, as is the case with Ohio BHA board member Levi Arnold. As an avid public land grouse hunter in the state of Ohio, Levi looks at the opportunity to grouse hunt as a way to contribute to the science:
“When I set out with my dog to hunt grouse we’re constantly collecting data. Flush rates or a lack there of in some cases are all data I happily contribute to the cause. I advocate for more habitat not just for grouse but also other early successional dependent species such as Wood thrush, Blue-winged warblers, American woodcock, Prairie warblers, and the plethora of other fauna that need these vital habitats on the landscape.”
This is a tricky question: do you continue to hunt a species in decline if it's clear that hunting is not contributing substantially to the decline? Does the fact that the hunters of this species are vocal and powerful advocates for habitat improvement change the equation?
As an organization, the Ohio chapter of BHA recognizes the difficulty of answering these questions, but opposes the immediate change in the hunting season, pending the results of the habitat study by ODNR and OSU. It is our hope that hunters will continue to play a role in the collection of data on grouse, because literally no one will look harder for grouse than those hunters and their dogs. We recognize that opinions may vary on this issue, and encourage our members and other interested parties to voice their opinions on this topic to ODNR via the survey below:
Ohio Ruffed Grouse Hunting Survey