By John Hayes / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pennsylvania hunters should see an outstanding grouse season, by all indications except one -- the absence of grouse.
As the first leg of a three-part split season opens this weekend, the Pennsylvania Game Commission's go-to person on ruffed grouse said spring research and summer sightings don't add up, resulting in a recent advisory that grouse hunting was expected to be "slightly below average."
"Conditions were good in winter and spring, with a lot of early reports of plenty of broods by June 1. Then as summer came, our people in the field were filing reports saying [grouse] numbers were down, down, down," said Game Commission grouse and woodcock specialist Lisa Williams. "It didn't make sense. I was scratching my head, because my gut still tells me we should see a lot of grouse out there."
Pennsylvania's official state bird is North America's most widely distributed resident game bird. While the grouse population has declined in the state since 1980, and the number of hunters targeting them is down, more than 100,000 Pennsylvania hunters are expected to harvest 75,000 to 100,000 grouse in the 2012-13 seasons, contributing some $79 million to the state's economy, according to a Game Commission report.
Ruffed grouse can be found in most forested areas. But like the woodcock and song birds with whom they share the thickets, grouse are habitat specialists preferring what Williams called "really thick, gnarly stuff." Serious grouse hunters know they'll have to get physical in grape tangles and dense stands of seedlings and saplings to force an adrenaline-inducing flush.
Pennsylvania Grouse Cooperators -- a group of 314 hard-core grouse hunters who keep track of their hunts and report back to the Game Commission -- documented 1.32 flushes per hour last season, the highest flush rate among neighboring states. But Pennsylvania has been tough on grouse.
"Losses of young forest habitat over the last several decades have been bad news for grouse, woodcock and other species that rely on these habitats," said Ian Gregg, Game Commission Game Bird Section supervisor, in a written statement.
Young forests up to 20 years old dropped from nearly 20 percent of total forest acres in 1980 to a little over 10 percent today.
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