Game bird experts and avid hunters have long been monitoring the declining population of ruffed grouse in some parts of the nation, as a lack of habitat and the emergence of West Nile Virus has led to a painfully slow — and painfully predictable — conclusion.
In some areas, the birds are disappearing.
In 2019, the state of Wisconsin cut its grouse hunting season short, eliminating the final three weeks. New Jersey, which first reacted to a declining population with new laws in 2005, took a more draconian step last year: It canceled the entire grouse season for the foreseeable future.
Closer to home, Maine’s game bird biologist said the state’s abundant grouse habitat has left grouse populations here in good condition, and said he’s hearing from more and more hunters looking into traveling to Maine for a hunt.
“I’ve been getting more calls from folks that typically would be hunting the Midwest or other areas,” said wildlife biologist Kelsey Sullivan of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “There’s a little bit of a shift. People are starting to look at Maine to come and hunt.”
Sullivan said that grouse populations in some states have declined by 50 to 60 percent over the past 50 years in places that are losing “quality grouse habitat.”
“It’s happening in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and in the Midwest,” he said.
Grouse, which are often called “partridge” by Maine hunters, need early successional forests, or forests that are growing back after having been cut, to thrive.
In Maine — especially in northern parts of the state — active logging operations carried out by the forest products industry has produced what Sullivan called a “dynamic, always changing” forest that favors grouse.
“[Grouse] use a few different stages [of forest] depending on their life cycle,” Sullivan said. “When they have a brood, it’s a mix of 10- to 15-year-old growth. And then, later in the wintertime, [they need] 20- to 25-year growth.”
At certain times, grouse also favor very new growth that has grown back as raspberries, which they’ll eat. But one thing remains a constant, according to Sullivan.
“Anything older than like 25 years is really not grouse habitat,” he said.
Matt J. Libby is a guide and owner of Libby Camps in northern Maine’s Township 8, Range 9. His business focuses on bird hunters in October, and they have been able to find plenty of grouse in the nearby industrial forest.
“The cutting practices in our area may have a negative impact on the deer herd, but it is great for grouse. There is more habitat than ever,” Libby said. “The number of grouse hunters is up all over the North Maine Woods. People are finally hearing how good the hunting is.”
Al Cowperthwaite is the executive director of North Maine Woods Inc., a 3.5 million acre swath of land owned by a variety of property owners. NMW operates gates at various locations, and tracks land use and recreational trends at those gates.
In October of 2019, 11,056 parties — many of them bird hunters — passed through those gates. That’s a 9 percent increase over the 2018 total, and accounted for 37 percent of the total annual visitors.
According to Cowperthwaite’s data, the North Maine Woods hosted 21,048 visitor-days of grouse hunting in 2019, an increase of 24.5 percent from the previous year.
“We do have lots of young forest with plenty of browsing species such as aspen and poplar, which are favored by partridge, intermingled with mature forests that provide suitable cover and winter habitat,” Cowperthwaite said.
And while “road hunting” for grouse remains popular, Cowperthwaite said reports indicated that there are better ways to find the birds than to just wait for one to step into sight.
“Hunters with sporting dogs or on foot did very well compared with road hunters,” Cowperthwaite said. “Checkpoint staff commented that hunters hunting roads continued to return through the fall even though they were not taking too many birds. Riding through the woods appears to be almost as rewarding as shooting birds. I do not see that trend changing anytime soon.”
Jeff McEvoy, a guide who owns Weatherby’s, a sporting camp in Grand Lake Stream, said that in his part of the state, American woodcock are far more prevalent than ruffed grouse. He does take hunters to northern Maine’s Allagash region each fall to hunt for grouse, but has not seen as many birds as he would like.
But he recognizes the unique position that Maine finds itself in, as other states watch their grouse populations dwindle.
“I think Maine is the last stronghold for these birds — it’s like [that state’s similar position] with our wild brook trout populations,” McEvoy said. “We’ve got grouse, and a lot of places south of us don’t have any.”
And because Maine does have grouse, McEvoy said it’s important to appreciate the resource.
“There’s a lot of value to those birds,” he said. “I’d hate to see them disappear on us.”