Can Logging Help Game Populations in the East?

By most accounts, the 1970s and ’80s were the good ol’ days for public land hunters in the East. Deer and hunter numbers, along with success rates, were booming on national forest land in the region.

These days, the hunting cultures that once thrived in places like the George Washington, Pisgah, and Monongahela national forests are largely gone. Meat poles are more likely to bear the weight of wet clothes than fresh venison, and instead of tales of bucks that got away, hunters are more likely to gripe about another day without so much as a single deer sighting.

Whitetail populations on U.S. Forest Service lands across the Eastern United States have plummeted. According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ deer management plan, whitetail populations within the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest have fallen by as much as 74% in some counties since 1994. Overall, the deer killed in Virginia’s national forests fell from 14,000 in 1994 to 5,200 in 2014, even though the total statewide harvest has climbed significantly. Turkey numbers on federal lands are down, too. And grouse? Good luck kicking up a bird on any national forest in the Mid-Atlantic these days. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission’s avid grouse hunter survey showed hunters flushed 1.25 birds per hour on public lands in 1990. Last year, they reported .6 flushes per hour of effort. Trends are similar on public lands in Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Tennessee.

So, what happened? There are likely several contributing factors, the popularity of private land management, increased landowner tags, decreased predator control, and more. But the slide in game populations does seem to coincide with a concurrent trend of less timber harvest on national forests. Clear-cuts and selective cuts were a fairly common sight throughout the East 30 years ago. Today, about 800 acres, less than one-tenth of a percent of the combined 1 million acres of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, are logged each year. A significantly smaller percentage (.03%) of the George Washington is cut annually. As timber harvest have decreased, so have game populations—suggesting causation to some researchers and conservationists.

Grouse, deer, and turkeys thrive in young forests, or what biologists call early successional habitat. It consists of a mix of young trees, stump sprouts, grasses, vines, and shrubs.

There’s no question the immediate impact of a logging operation is unsightly.

Within a year, though, the forest starts to regenerate. Sprouts emerge from tree stumps. Grasses and shrubs spring from the forest floor. Research conducted by scientists at the U.S. Forest Service’s Southern Research Station found, “Fruit biomass (dry edible pulp) can be 5 to nearly 50 times greater in young forest than mature forest as ‘pioneer’ species, such as pokeweed and blackberry, ericaceous shrubs, various forbs and grasses, and stump sprouts of many tree species produce fruit.”

The fresh cover doesn’t just provide abundant food for deer and other wildlife, but it also provides high-quality fawning habitat and prime nesting and brood-rearing habitat for grouse and turkeys. Nest predation is lower when birds have ample overhead cover and good habitat to raise their young.

Increased forest age diversity isn’t just good for things we can shoot. A variety of non-game wildlife depends on early-successional habitat as well. More than 40 species of birds that depend on young forests, including golden-winged warblers, brown thrashers, and towhees, are now considered species of greatest conservation need, according to the Young Forest Project. As young forest acreage declines, so do the birds and animals that depend on it.

A good step forward to boosting populations of imperiled game and non-game species on public lands is simple, according to a number of conservation groups: Cut more trees. But that has become considerably more difficult in the last 30 year as environmental groups have ramped up efforts to block many proposed timber sales. According to the Ruffed Grouse Society, “Public resistance to scientifically sound habitat management practices (is) one of the top three significant and long-term impediments to the future of healthy forest habitat benefiting not only ruffed grouse and American woodcock but a wide array of forest wildlife.”

Basically, many, if not most, proposed timber cuts on national forest land are met with a slew of legal challenges, bogging down the Forest Service in redundant reviews and information requests.

One logging project on the Nantahala National Forest was first proposed in 2017. Initial plans were made to cut 854 acres from a total area of more than 20,000 acres. Prescribed burning was planned for an additional 3,600 acres. About 70% of the trees in that area are more than 81 years old and just .5% are less than 10 years old. Each cut averaged about 25 acres and the logging activity would take place over seven years, creating a patchwork of forest age diversity.

After objections from environmental groups, the plan was revised down to 795 acres, or about 3% of the total area. Prescribed burning was also stricken from the plan. Instead of clear cuts, loggers would perform shelterwood cuts, which leave a small percentage of trees standing. The Southern Environmental Law Center and the Sierra Club then raised new objections. Mountain True said the proposed timber cut has “the potential to be the most destructive timber sale in (western North Carolina) in more than a century.”

Another 1,419-acre timber management proposal on Virginia’s 1.8-million-acre George Washington and Jefferson National Forest was also the subject of lawsuits. The Forest Service scaled back the patchwork of cuts to 577 acres and dropped plans for prescribed burns. Countless other proposed habitat management activities have also been downsized or scrapped all together.

The good news is that a growing number of conservation organizations are embracing young forest management. The Nature Conservancy, which works in conjunction with various pro-hunting conservation groups like RMEF and QDMA, encourages early-successional habitat through timber harvest on many of its properties. The Audubon Society also promotes the benefits of young forests. The U.S. Forest Service has proposed streamlining the environmental review process of some management activities to help reduce the costs associated with them. The National Environmental Policy Act requires federal agencies to conduct thorough environmental impact analyses and a public comment period for various activities on federal land. The new rule proposal removes the public review process on projects intended for “ecosystem restoration and/or resilience activities,” including commercial logging of up to 4,200 acres or 6.6 square miles. An attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center called it a “recipe for ecological disaster.” Even many pro-hunting conservation groups that support more active forest management are not comfortable with giving the Forest Service and timber industry such broad leeway. The move is expected to be challenged in court.

Even if the process is streamlined, and even if more people understand the benefits of timber management, it’s unlikely those deer camps that used to line the roads snaking through the national forest will ever return, at least not in the numbers they used boast. An entire generation of national forest deer hunters and their traditions have been lost.

Things are even bleaker for ruffed grouse hunters. Although seasons remain open in most Eastern states with huntable populations, Indiana recently closed its grouse season. Bird numbers fell to just 1% of their historic population, and the state is considering listing them as “endangered.” Unless significant habitat improvements occur soon, like managed timber harvest, other states may be next.

Feature image via Wiki Commons.

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