We were in the rugged deep hills and hollows of either southern Boyd County or northern Lawrence County, back far from civilization. Ken Franks’ setter was locked in on a classic point. He and I and Dr. Bob Goodpaster waded into the undergrowth for the flush.
I had first shot. The roar of wings so unnerved me that I missed by half a mile. Than Franks and Goodpaster were shooting, pumping, shooting.
This grouse was a smart one. He knew when to zig and when to zag, how to put a tree between him and the shooter. He shot off uphill without one feather ruffled.
The dog gave us a look of utter scorn.
I remember Goodpaster, as he reloaded, saying, “We’ve got to follow up. We’ve got to nail that bird. If he’s allowed to pass those genes on, we’ll never bag another grouse.”
This hunt took place in the mid-1980s. In those days it was not too difficult to get up a dozen ruffed grouse on a two- to three-hour hunt.
I never thought in my lifetime I would witness what has happened to this most-prized of all game birds.
In Indiana, a state where they once were common, the decision has been made to place Ol’ Ruff on the endangered species list.
Indiana’s wildlife authorities report that the number of ruffed grouse is less than 1% of the population it was just 40 years ago. The number of breeding birds has declined steadily over the past 25 years. The bird is completely gone from at least 15 of the state’s 92 counties and in the other 77 to numbers are down drastically.
Officials in 18 other states across a wide geographic area — New England, the upper Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, the Appalachians – might wind up going the route of the Hoosier State.
“I had a knot in my stomach,” Ben Jones, President and CEO of the Ruffed Grouse Society, said in an email sent Friday. “An endangered listing, the last-ditch effort to save a species on the road to extinction. For our very own, beloved ruffed grouse?!
“The message came at a time when we are normally thankful and celebrating our natural world – the change of seasons, the flush of wild wings, time with friends.”
Jones said we might wishfully chalk up the slide to typical 10-year grouse patterns.
“But a 99% decline over forty years isn’t a cycle, it’s a downward spiral.”
The decline of grouse numbers is also taking effect in eastern Kentucky and southern Ohio. The chief reason is loss of habitat through poor management of forests over the years.
In unhealthy forests, grouse succumb to disease and predation.
The society is working with state wildlife biologists to rectify the problem.
A 10-YEAR PLAN
“The knot in my stomach has turned to a feeling of firm resolve,” Jones said. “We’re setting forth on a long-term mission to improve forest health. Habitat management, land conservation, partnerships, communications, research – all on the docket.
“To say this is a conservation crossroad is an understatement. For the Ruffed Grouse Society and the emblem of our forest conservation mission, this is a defining moment.”
Kentucky has launched a 10-year plan it calls the “Ruffed Grouse and Young Forest Strategic Initiative.”
Forest management includes commercial timber harvests and a plan to provide dense, young forest cover in proximity to mature, mast-producing trees.
Meanwhile, grouse hunting seasons go on as scheduled. Ohio’s opened back on Oct. 13 and will run through Jan. 31. The bag limit is two a day.
Kentucky’s season is in now and will run through the end of February. The daily limit is four.
Any hunter putting a daily limit in the game bag is worthy of a big silver and gold trophy.
Reach G. Sam Piatt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 606-932-3619.