23 July 2009

Cooperative Projects Benefit Grouse, Woodcock, and Other Wildlife

Numerous initiatives by the Ruffed Grouse Society continue to manage woodland habitat to improve conditions for birds and wildlife.

"The Society is working to focus its efforts to create large patches of high quality habitats wherever it can," said Mark Banker, with the Southern Appalachians Region of the group, out of State College, PA.

Declining habitat is severely affecting the abundance of grouse, American woodcock and other wildlife all over the eastern U.S.

"Cutting trees to maintain old field habitat with a CAT and tree shear‏.‏" Images courtesy of Mark Banker.

"Through an ever-expanding network of public and private partners, the use of heavy equipment has greatly increased the ability of RGS to create quality grouse and woodcock habitat. Shared resources and expertise among the partners is the key."

More than 80 habitat projects – comprising 1241 acres – have been completed since 2004 in the Central Appalachian region of Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, West Virginia, and Ohio.

The habitat management in this region – including aspen and shrub regeneration, removal of exotic shrubs and tree shearing for example - has been done with public and private landowners, and in cooperation with the various Departments of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Pennsylvania Game Commission and DCNR, and the U.S. Forest Service.

A sizable cost-share project with the U. S. Forest Service to maintain native shrubs and other wildlife habitat on approximately 400 acres of reclaimed strip mines on the Wayne National Forest in eastern Ohio was completed by the RGS on December 31, 2008, and began a second year of work in mid-July.

"The Forest Service is battling invasive shrubs like autumn olive and multi-flora rose on these sites," according to the RGS. "Ideally, portions of the project will be allowed to succeed to native shrubs and small trees. This stage of succession will provide prime habitat for grouse, woodcock, possibly quail, and a group of songbirds that likely is found few other places on the Forest."

"This was probably the largest cooperative project RGS has ever done with the Forest Service and the first of any kind for RGS on the Wayne," noted Mark Banker, who is overseeing the project for RGS. "The Forest Service staff and local RGS members were the catalysts for getting it done. It was a very ambitious project, but a unique opportunity for RGS to support early successional habitat management on this national forest. Now we are going to try it again and are just underway."

A "cost-share agreement provided RGS with $24,000 for future habitat projects in return for the use of their equipment and a very skillful, local equipment operator."

The Society has also been a partner in projects conducted with the Army Corp of Engineers, Banker said: "A cooperative project at Raystown Lake in Huntingdon County, PA, known as the Bashline Project has created 1,300 acres of new habitat through timber harvest and hundreds of more acres via mowing with RGS equipment, chain-sawing and planting on Corps lands. RGS has committed over $60,000 to this project over more than a decade."

Aspen regenerated using a tree shear, Pennsylvania.‏

The equipment program of the Society has allowed them and their partners "to manage high quality habitats that typically are neglected because of the lack of proper equipment. Woodcock in particular have benefited because large areas of old fields, prime woodcock habitat, that are typically left to convert to forests are now maintained as shrublands."

To date, more than 1,300 hundred acres of habitat have been managed to provide habitat required by a variety of species.

"This success would not have been possible with financial assistance, especially from foundations," Banker said.

"In the Spring of 2009, the Society received three grants totaling $182,000 for two ASV/Terex PT-100 Forestry loaders with mulching heads with grants of from the R.K. Mellon Foundation, the Frey Foundation of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and from the Charlevoix County Community Foundation located in East Jordan, Michigan."

"The equipment will be used to manage neglected aspen, alder and brush habitats for ruffed grouse, woodcock and many other species, primarily in Michigan and Wisconsin," and are "important tools to help the Ruffed Grouse Society target habitat improvements for woodcock in habitat like alder, that is not being managed by commercial harvests," said Gary Zimmer, RGS senior biologist in the Western Great Lakes Region. "With this equipment the Society will be one of the primary implementers of the Upper Great Lakes Woodcock and Young Forest Habitat Initiative."

In 2007, the Society had received another grant from the R.K. Mellon Foundation to purchase two more CAT multi-terrain loaders and a new mulching cutting head. The grant, according to the Society, "made it possible for RGS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to expand the use of these machines into New England, Ohio, New Jersey, West Virginia and wherever they can address habitat management needs."

"We were really inspired by what the Service’s Partners for Wildlife program was doing with small machines in Pennsylvania," said Banker. "They were doing more for woodcock habitats with their small machines than the rest of us combined, so we decided to follow their lead."

The Society purchased its first-ever piece of machinery in 2004, a Caterpillar 277B multi-terrain loader, a tree sheer and a heavy-duty mower, with a grant from the R.K. Mellon Foundation, Society records show.

"As heavy equipment goes, these are not extremely expensive machines, but without the generosity of Foundations, they would be out of reach financially," Banker said. "To hire someone to do the same work with these machines would be at least $120 per hour, so they pay for themselves very quickly. RGS does charge for work on private lands and reinvests the money into keeping the equipment running and completing other conservation projects.

"The machine purchased with the grant funds has so-far accomplished more than $100,000 worth of habitat work on public land, based conservatively on the cost of contracting," according to the Society.

"Because many of the projects target woodcock and grouse, the Society often sees an immediate response from the birds after converting poor habitat to something more usable," Banker noted. "A recent project on public lands enticed woodcock to immediately use an area where none had been detected in the previous five years. Literally dozens of songbirds have the same habitat requirements as grouse and woodcock. Their response also has been dramatic. One managed area in Pennsylvania has even spawned a research project on golden-winged warblers, a relatively rare species that has benefited from the habitat manipulations.

"In some cases, Society members have acted as stewards of certain projects and have even volunteered to run the equipment. The machines are so user friendly that their basic operation can be taught in less than an hour. This has been a great way to get folks more involved with habitat management."

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