A state-agency partnership is creating more habitat for two troubled game birds and other wildlife species that rely on young forest.

Since 2011, the Pennsylvania Game Commission and the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources have teamed to restore thousands of acres of idle, difficult-to-manage habitat for ruffed grouse and woodcock on state forests.

The partnership, spearheaded by DCNR’s Emily Just, an ecologist with the Bureau of Forestry, and Lisa Williams, a Game Commission game birds biologist, has been helping state forests and parks personnel write plans to remedy what ails now marginal habitats that once supported substantial populations of the ol’ ruff and timberdoodles. Both depend on young forests, which have been declining in Pennsylvania for some time. Grouse covet young upland forest — preferably with some adjacent stands of more mature trees; woodcock need young forest and shrubby thickets in soggy lowlands that offers their favorite food, worms.

“Pennsylvania is currently at a 50-year-low for this critical habitat,” Williams explained. “The decline of young forest has been dramatic.”

Pennsylvania lost about 30 percent of its young forest between 1980 and 2005, and declines continue, Williams said. Just five percent of Pennsylvania forests are young — up to 19 years old, according to 2014 forest inventory data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service.

Although grouse mortality also is tied to West Nile virus, habitat is the key to keeping the state bird abundant in Penn’s Woods. It’s a conclusion resource managers back.

“Waiting until they’re almost gone and require hefty emergency care to save is not an option,” Williams emphasized.

So Williams and Just came up with an approach that evolved into an interagency habitat prescription service that leans heavily on collaboration and cooperation. They head into the hills to work with DCNR foresters on projects for grouse and woodcock throughout the state. They figure their teamwork has led to about 1,000 acres of new grouse and woodcock habitat being created annually.

Aspen is promoted where possible because it is an important tree to ruffed grouse, providing the bird food — buds, catkins, leaves — all year long, Williams said. Even the way aspen’s leaves allow filtered light to pass down through the canopy promotes ground-level vegetation beneficial to grouse. Its value is unquestionable.

A colonizing species, aspen filled in on the barren landscape after deforestation had leveled Penn’s Woods early in the 20th century and farmland reverted to forest. Grouse responded and Pennsylvania had fantastic upland hunting. Today, aspen makes up only a small portion of the state’s forestland.

In 2013, the American Bird Conservancy identified early-successional forests as one of the Top 10 most-threatened bird habitats in America, Williams said.

“The loss of young forest means trouble for the species that need it,” Williams said. “In addition to grouse and woodcock, dozens of other species are declining. Change is needed to ensure they can have healthy populations in the future.”

The woodcock work has been especially encouraging, Williams said.

“Spring surveys indicate we’re supporting eight times the number of woodcocks in managed sites than we see in unmanaged sites, where woodcock numbers remain stalled. The birds are showing us the work is making a real difference.”

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