The image of a hunter swinging an old side-by-side shotgun towards a ruffed grouse flushing over a bird dog is synonymous with American hunting history. Ruffed grouse were once a very popular, plentiful upland game bird throughout much of the country. Not too long ago, in a lot of places, you were more likely to hear a male grouse drumming than a wild turkey gobbling during the spring breeding season. These days, it’s a different story for both grouse and grouse hunters.
Like many hunters of the time, my father was a dyed-in-the-wool ruffed grouse hunter during the 1960s and ’70s. He hunted Pennsylvania’s most popular game bird over an English Setter named Duster. By the time I was old enough to hunt, Duster had passed away and my father had largely given up on grouse hunting.
I shot my first ruffed grouse in a small suburban woodlot in northwestern Pennsylvania while I was out kicking brush piles for cottontails. Although it wasn’t uncommon to flush a grouse or two on mixed bag small game hunts, I had yet to get my hands on one. I ground-sluiced the bird as it bobbed and weaved through a tangle of wild grape vines. At 14 years old, the thought of waiting to shoot until the bird to took flight never crossed my mind.
These days, it’s a rarity to even see a ruffed grouse in the area where I grew up. For a variety of reasons, there’s a lot less of these birds around today than there used to be. In fact, ruffed grouse numbers have plummeted across much of their native range east of the Mississippi—and so have the number of grouse hunters.
Ruffed Grouse Range and Habitat
Ruffed grouse are widely distributed throughout most of the continental United States. They live as far south as Georgia and as far north and west as Alaska. However, their populations and range have declined greatly in the Northeast, Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states, especially in the areas west of the Appalachian Mountains and south of the Great Lakes.
Throughout their range, ruffed grouse prefer mixed stands of young aspens, birch, conifers and thick brush. Overgrown fringes along swampy wetlands and beaver ponds are particularly attractive. As long as appropriate habitat exists, ruffed grouse can be found anywhere from abandoned farms to wilderness forests.
According to the Ruffed Grouse Society, “They thrive best where forests are kept young and vigorous by occasional logging, wind storms, or fire and gradually diminish in numbers as forests mature and their critical food and cover resources deteriorate in the shade of a climax forest.”
This type of habitat is rapidly disappearing throughout the eastern half of the country. Small family farms that once harbored good grouse habitat are either being converted to large commercial farms that use every last square inch of available space for agricultural production, or into subdivisions, which require clearing woodlots and draining wetlands. Commercial logging on state and federal lands, which results in forest thinning and new growth, has fallen out of favor in many areas where grouse once thrived.
Additionally, modern fire management practices protect overly mature forests from periodic natural burning, which would normally create productive young forest habitat.
In Indiana, the situation is so dire that they were declared a state endangered species. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources estimates ruffed grouse populations are just 1 percent of what they were 40 years ago.
The Indiana DNR website states: “By 1983 [ruffed grouse] range included 41 counties, the widest distribution since 1856. After peaking in the 1980s … ruffed grouse appear to be extirpated from 15 counties and this trend is likely to exceed 25 counties within a few years. The plight of ruffed grouse reflects the declining early successional habitat base that is negatively impacting a wide array of wildlife species.”
As a result, all ruffed grouse hunting has been suspended in Indiana.
Habitat problems plague many of our fish and game species. Ruffed grouse are no different, but when poor habitat and disease collide, the situation becomes even more alarming.
West Nile Virus
A second, more recent complication has been implicated in dwindling ruffed grouse populations. West Nile Virus has been found to sicken or kill over 300 species of birds in the United States. Discovered here in 1999, the disease is transmitted when birds are bitten by infected mosquitoes.
West Nile Virus has been detected in every state in the Lower 48. Ruffed grouse have been particularly susceptible to the effects of the disease. In Pennsylvania, where the ruffed grouse is the state bird, population numbers have been on a slow decline for decades, but a more precipitous drop has corresponded with the spread of West Nile Virus.
Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist Lisa Williams doesn’t believe that’s a coincidence. “By 2000, it had spread to southern New England states, and in 2002, every county in Pennsylvania had it,” Williams told the AP. “West Nile Virus is primarily a bird disease, so I suspected it might be impacting our grouse.”
Laboratory test results supported her theory when ruffed grouse chicks exposed to West Nile Virus suffered a 90 percent mortality rate. Furthermore, the impact of disease on Pennsylvania’s only wild grouse species is likely linked to habitat.
“We originally thought ideal brood habitat, prior to 2015, was low-lying moist bottomlands with abundant ground cover,” Williams continued. “Now, we’re not so sure.”
The species of mosquito most likely to transmit West Nile Virus to ruffed grouse prefers low elevations. Based on these findings, the state is now focused on improving habitat at higher elevations where grouse chicks are less likely to be exposed to mosquitoes with the disease. The hope is that better habitat and nesting cover will help Pennsylvania’s grouse population bounce back.
Still, a state that was once a popular destination for grouse hunters from all over the country has been forced to take drastic measures. Wildlife managers determined it was necessary to eliminate Pennsylvania’s 2018-2019 late grouse season, which normally opens after Christmas. The decision was made in order to give more grouse a chance to survive through the winter and into the spring breeding season.
Other states have also recently shortened or closed ruffed grouse hunting seasons. Wisconsin’s grouse season normally runs from Sept. 15 until Jan. 31. Last year, the season was changed to close on Nov. 30.
According to a Wisconsin DNR hunter survey, “The harvest of ruffed grouse declined over 30 percent from 262,943 in 2016 to 185,336 in 2017 despite a 7 percent increase in hunter days afield. This is the lowest estimated harvest in the 34-year history of the DNR small game hunter survey.”
All of this is enough to make some grouse hunters call it quits and, in some places, that is exactly what seems to be happening.
Small game hunting participation has fallen dramatically in the past couple decades. That trend, combined with severely diminished grouse numbers, means hunting ruffed grouse just isn’t as popular as it once was.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries estimated only 3.5 percent of licensed hunters would pursue grouse in 2018. In Minnesota, a state with a much stronger grouse hunting culture than Virginia, “License sales were down 5 to 8 percent in advance of the 2018 ruffed grouse opener,” according to Tony Kennedy of the Star Tribune.
As with the general trend of declining numbers of small game hunters throughout the country, ruffed grouse hunters are a dying breed. They’re aging out of the sport and they’re not being replaced with new hunters with any interest in or connection to ruffed grouse. Once a nationwide passion, our love for ruffed grouse hunting is being forgotten.
Meanwhile, wild turkey and whitetail deer hunting continue to grow more popular than ever. The popularity of these species translates into millions of advocates that support active management and healthy populations of their favorite game animals.
It’s impossible to imagine those hunters standing idly by if deer or turkey numbers were bottoming out. Such a situation would be viewed as a catastrophe among the entire hunting community. Ruffed grouse, on the other hand, aren’t winning any popularity contests among hunters, and their plight seems to be going largely unnoticed.
Fortunately, the news isn’t all bad. There are still places you can find productive hunting spots where large swaths of grouse country remain undeveloped. If there is active logging going on that ensures a constantly rotating supply of young forest tracts, all the better. In these places, hunters are still subject to the vagaries of the ruffed grouse’s natural 10-year boom-bust population cycle and the growing impacts of West Nile Virus, but good habitat ensures there will always be at least a few birds around.
Hunters can still find good hunting in the undeveloped forests of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In Maine and New Hampshire, where local hunters refer to ruffed grouse as partridge, hunting opportunities are excellent. In Maine alone, as many as half a million grouse are harvested annually.
Don’t forget about western ruffed grouse, either. A couple years ago on a backcountry spring bear hunt in northwestern Montana, the MeatEater crew encountered an astounding number of ruffed grouse. Throughout the week, the constant sound of male grouse drumming reminded us of lawnmowers being started up in the distance. Idaho also has some great ruffed grouse habitat and hunting. In these states, if you find aspen groves and berry patches surrounded by evergreen cover, you’ll likely find ruffed grouse.
Whether or not you hunt ruffed grouse, you may be interested in helping out this iconic bird. Consider joining the Ruffed Grouse Society and volunteering at your fish and game agency for habitat improvement projects, flush counts and spring drumming surveys. The plight of the ruffed grouse should concern all hunters.