State is part of bird swap

Correspondent

Madison It’s been 27 years since the first wild Missouri turkey
set foot in Wisconsin’s Vernon County in January of 1976. That bird
represented the first successful wild turkey reintroduction effort
after a long string of failures in the Badger State.

The bird was one of 45 wild turkeys to come from Missouri as a
result of a 1974 agreement between the Missouri Department of
Conservation and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Under that agreement, Missouri would ship 45 wild turkeys to
Wisconsin, and Wisconsin would ship back 135 ruffed grouse to help
Missouri’s grouse program take flight.

Over the next nine years, about 334 turkeys were trapped in
Missouri and transported to Wisconsin for release. Over that same
time, more than 1,000 Wisconsin grouse were shipped to
Missouri.

Additional grouse were brought into Missouri from Ohio, Indiana,
and Minnesota. In all, more than 3,700 grouse were released in
Missouri at 50 release sites throughout that state from 1959 until
the early 1990s.

Wisconsin turkeys took off and thrived, and so did Missouri’s
grouse, biologists say. But grouse success in Missouri was
short-lived the problem wasn’t the exchange program or stocking
process, but habitat changes that placed hardship on the birds,
hampering their long-term success.

“The swap was very successful for both states,” said Gary Zimmer
of Laona, Western Great Lakes regional biologist for the Ruffed
Grouse Society. Zimmer oversees ruffed grouse management in the U.P
of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri. “The birds
(Missouri’s grouse) took off, they did well and they’ve had a
hunting season ever since.”

But he said habitat management in Missouri couldn’t keep up with
growing grouse numbers, and forests matured. Ruffed grouse require
young forest habitat in order to stabilize and increase. The lack
of proper habitat put Missouri’s introduced grouse on a steady
decline.

“The habitat in Missouri is getting older overall,” Zimmer said.
“Instead of the outstanding, thick, dense cover and regenerating
oak stands, in particular, the stands are middle-aged or maturing,
and the shrub density isn’t there. While timber is being harvested,
often it’s more of a selective harvest, especially for the value of
the oak trees, instead of a regeneration harvest. Ruffed grouse
habitat isn’t quite at the level it was 20 years ago in Missouri,
and the grouse numbers have gone down in recent years.”

Zimmer said ruffed grouse are a native bird in the Show Me
State. Missouri’s historical habitat changes mirror that of
southern Wisconsin’s during the early 1900s as forests were cleared
for agriculture. It was these changes that led Missouri to
implement a grouse stocking program beginning in the 1950s.

“A lot of the forest that was there was cleared and burned,”
Zimmer said. “That changed the habitat much like that in the
southern half of Wisconsin where it became a lot of farm fields and
mixtures of some forest habitat.”

In the years since stocking ceased in the early 1990s, Missouri
grouse have declined.

“Actually, grouse are not doing well in Missouri,” said Mike
Hubbard, resource science supervisor for the Missouri Department of
Conservation. “Turkeys and grouse will occupy similar habitats, but
the reality is grouse need a special set of habitats all pulled
together. They’re specialists; turkeys are generalists. Grouse need
those early 5- to 20-year-old clear-cut areas and high stem
densities in forests to provide escape cover and brooding
cover.”

Hubbard said the specific habitat requirements of grouse
combined with a lack of forest management to provide long-term
support for the stocked grouse contributed to the decline in
Missouri’s grouse populations after the grouse-for-turkey swap.

“Our grouse numbers are really low because we don’t have a lot
of clear-cuts in the state,” he said. “Our forest is increasing in
acres statewide, but it’s a reflection of the fact that we’re not
harvesting large amounts of timber. When we do, we are doing
selective harvest instead of even-age management. We’re not
creating grouse habitat. It’s just that simple.”

Reports of good grouse hunting in Missouri after the initial
releases were common. Now, Hubbard doubts there are more than a
couple hundred grouse hunters in Missouri pursuing the birds
actively.

“Our hunters probably don’t harvest 40 or 50 grouse during the
course of the year,” he said. “That would be my guess, but we have
no way of tracking that. When there aren’t very many grouse, nobody
chases them.”

Right now, the most densely populated region is the River Hills
area west of St. Louis.

That same area is the site of a new intensive habitat management
program called the River Hills Forest Habitat Project. The program
whose partners include the Missouri Department of Conservation,
Ruffed Grouse Society, Audubon Society, National Wild Turkey
Federation and Quail Unlimited seeks to improve young forest
habitat in a matrix of public and private land in Callaway,
Montgomery and Warren counties.

“We are looking at providing the habitat needs for wildlife
species that prefer young forest habitat,” Zimmer said. “So it’s
not just a grouse thing it’s pretty obvious that having that young
forest habitat is really a lacking component of the forest
landscape in Missouri.”

The program includes habitat regeneration on six state wildlife
areas on or near the Missouri River. Landowners also are being
given the opportunity to include additional private acreage in the
program. The project’s goal, says Hubbard, is to focus resources in
a smaller area known to hold grouse and increase those populations
not with stocking, but with an management approach to create and
maintain young forest habitat.

“There are grouse scattered throughout the Ozarks and we still
have reports of them on and off in different places every year,”
Hubbard said. “It’s just through the River Hills area they’re doing
fairly well compared to the rest of the state.”

The future of grouse conservation in Missouri, if it’s to match
the success of Wisconsin’s turkey reintroduction project, will rely
on sound habitat management practices such as the Rivers Hills
Project, rather than relying on just stocking alone, Zimmer
said.

“I think this River Hills project has the potential to be
something looked at for young forest habitat in other states,” he
said. “It’s not always popular to have young forests, but it is
popular to have young forest wildlife species. While folks often
jump on the bandwagon to promote old growth, which is very
justifiable, we also have to jump on the bandwagon to promote young
forest habitat.”

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