It’s sunset in late August in northcentral Wisconsin’s Iron County, and MDC Private Land Conservationists Nate Mechlin and Richard Temple arrive to check their last trap of the evening. Up to this point, tonight’s run has been a shut-out, but that ends with the discovery of two juvenile ruffed grouse — one male and one female — in the trap.
Approaching the trap quietly, Mechlin and Temple work quickly to cut the zip ties holding the top in place and remove the birds one at a time, placing them in small, ventilated cardboard boxes.
“It’s critical that we do everything we can to reduce stress on the birds,” Mechlin said. “In this case, we minimize stress by being really quiet, going in there grabbing the birds quickly, and getting them into the holding boxes right away.”
In that moment, those two grouse, subsequently designated #147 and #148, went from being just two of hundreds of thousands to being two of only 300 birds captured over a three-year period for relocation to Missouri as part of an effort to re-establish a ruffed grouse population here — a type of accidental pioneer.
During the months of August and September in 2018 and 2019, MDC staff captured 100 ruffed grouse each year for relocation to the Daniel Boone and Little Lost Creek conservation areas in a part of east-central Missouri known as the Missouri River Hills Region, an area that includes counties along the Missouri River from Jefferson City to St. Louis. Work to capture and move the final group of 100 birds was postponed until August and September of 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A ground-feeding, heavy-bodied, chicken-like bird of the same scientific order as the turkey, quail, greater prairie chicken, and pheasant, the ruffed grouse was once common in Missouri. Their one-time value as a game species and the distinct sound of the male’s mating ritual wing beating — known as “drumming” — makes it an iconic species, said MDC Resource Scientist Reina Tyl, ruffed grouse program leader.
“Ruffed grouse are a native species here in Missouri that I think just hold a lot of value for people,” she said. “They really like to see them out in the forest and hear them in the springtime drumming.”
The 20th century saw the grouse population ebb and flow. Despite several attempts to stabilize and restore the ruffed grouse population by bringing in birds from other states, populations have been trending downward for several decades, according to MDC Cervid Program Supervisor Jason Isabelle, who preceded Tyl as ruffed grouse program leader.
“Quite a few of those releases were deemed successful initially, but over time, populations in those areas slowly declined until the birds were gone,” Isabelle said. “Some persisted longer than others, and really, the last area that we would call a stronghold was in this area where we’re trying again now.”
As the decline continued and wildlife managers recognized the inevitability of a grouse-less Missouri, discussions began on how to address the issue, considering the history of previous efforts. A 2011–2013 study determined that another reintroduction attempt required habitat restoration. Grouse require early successional forest habitat — forest that is less than 25 years old — to thrive, Isabelle said.
“Grouse are unique in that they have a very well-defined niche as far as suitable habitat is concerned,” he said. “They’re not a generalist; they are a specialist. Whereas turkeys and deer will do well just about anywhere, grouse need young forests that are five to 20 years old, and if you don’t have that age class of forest, you don’t have grouse.”
Ruffed grouse require young forests with densely growing trees to help them hide from predators. This early successional forest is the result of ruffed grouse habitat restoration efforts on Daniel Boone CA.
And while most people associate habitat loss with human activity, such as urban spread and development, the habitat loss that affects the ruffed grouse is caused by human inactivity, Tyl explained.
“We use the term forest maturation, that was the main source of their habitat loss,” she said. “It wasn’t that those forests are no longer forests, it’s just that there became this public perception that cutting trees is bad.”
Early successional forest habitat — characterized by the growth of thick underbrush and young trees that begins after a portion of the forest is cleared, whether by harvest or a natural event like fire or storm — offers grouse both food and shelter missing from a fully mature forest.
“Some species can do okay without it, but there’s some that can’t, and the ruffed grouse is one of those that just will not be able to thrive without that habitat,” she said.
A Long-Term Plan
But one of the findings of the 2011–2013 study was that the Missouri River Hills Region, which includes Little Lost Creek and Daniel Boone conservation areas, had insufficient early successional forest habitat to sustain a reintroduced grouse population. Any restoration effort would require extensive habitat work at these two conservation areas, Isabelle said.
“We recognized that those two areas were going to be our core if we’re going to restore grouse,” he said. “Those two areas are not that far apart, and they’re decent size areas, which affects how much habitat can be created.”
Preparing the areas for a new grouse population required revamped area management plans and several years of habitat restoration, said Little Lost Creek and Daniel Boone conservation areas Manager Jeff Bakameyer.
“It was a long-term effort getting prepared for them,” Bakameyer said. “What we’ve tried to shoot for — for Little Lost Creek and Daniel Boone — is around 20 to maybe 25 percent of the area being in that early successional forest habitat at any one time.”
‘Critter Carrying Capacity’
Even rolling out the habitat version of the red carpet at area conservation areas is not enough without the cooperation of surrounding landowners, Tyl said. “There are quite a few landowners in that area who are really great cooperators and have done a lot of really good habitat work because grouse mean a lot to them,” she said. “Some of their families have lived there for probably a hundred years, so they have a lot of interest in the success of this effort, and they’re willing to do the work.”
Landowners Bill and Margie Haag purchased 1,450 acres of primarily hardwood forest just west of Daniel Boone CA in 1997.
“We had grouse when we first bought it, and the population was obviously fading at that point,” Haag said. “And over the years they just disappeared.”
Almost immediately, Haag set about working with MDC private land conservationists to improve what he called the “critter carrying capacity” of the property. That effort led to participation with fellow landowners in the Ruffed Grouse Chapter of Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation. He estimated that combined, chapter members have created 10,000 acres of grouse habitat in the region.
“You band together 80–100 landowners and you’re doing some stuff on a landscape scale, and that’s what it has to be,” he said. “You can’t have a hundred acres of good habitat as an island in a sea of nothing.”
As the host of the annual A Day with Grouse event, Haag takes other landowners and interested visitors on a tour of parts of his property in different states of regrowth, explaining the importance of forest management on wildlife.
“In essence, what I always tell people is that creating good habitat is like taking care of a big vegetable garden, the worst thing you can do — that any property owner can do — is nothing,” he said. “It needs to be managed.”
Flagship Species … and More
Converting thousands of acres of forestland to early successional forest habitat isn’t quick or easy — and it doesn’t only benefit grouse, Bakameyer said.
“It’s definitely not one of those things that you do and then walk away from,” he said. “It is a tremendous amount of effort — and we tie it to this one species, to ruffed grouse, because they’re kind of the flagship species … but there’s a lot of other species that just aren’t as well known, different Neotropical migrant bird species and others that this sort of habitat is a critical need for them, too.”
Haag has seen how the creation of early successional forest habitat improves the “critter carrying capacity” of his property, including an increase in species beyond grouse.
“Our songbird population has just exploded since we’ve been doing a lot of this stuff,” he said. “We’re seeing stuff I never saw before, stuff like scarlet tanagers.”
And while many species prosper in this habitat, Haag recognizes its importance if grouse are to make the desired rebound in Missouri.
“When we bring these birds from Wisconsin, we want them to have the best, most welcoming chance for survival — and prosper and multiply — that we can offer.”
The Long Trip South
Scratching about for insects that August afternoon, the ruffed grouse designated as #147 and #148 encounter a chicken-wire fence roughly 2 feet tall and 50 feet long. Short enough to easily fly over, these two do what comes natural to a ground-dwelling species — they go around. Instead of circumventing the obstacle, they find themselves caught in a funnel trap.
Once trapped, the birds enter a process that is designed to minimize the stress of being relocated, said MDC Resource Scientist Reina Tyl, ruffed grouse program leader.
“We understand we’re putting these birds through a lot, right?” Tyl said. “We’re expecting a lot of them — to uproot them from where they are and move them to a completely unfamiliar place — and so that’s why we put so much thought into how can we make this the best possible, least stressful experience for them.”
From the trap site, the birds are taken to MDC’s operations center — a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) facility an hour away in Price County — for processing by MDC State Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. Sherri Russell. With WDNR veterinarian Dr. Lindsey Long, the pair devised a medical evaluation and treatment regimen to ensure the birds arrive in Missouri healthy.
“You have to look to make sure that, one, they are healthy and able to withstand the trip,” Russell said. “And then, two, we’re trying to make sure that we don’t bring any kind of disease to Missouri from Wisconsin.”
Each bird is anesthetized and given a quick physical. Birds that are healthy enough to make the trip — like #147 and #148 — have a blood sample taken to test for West Nile virus, and they are weighed, sexed, treated for ticks, and injected with warm fluids.
“We give them warm fluids under the skin so they will arrive hydrated,” she said. “They aren’t going to eat and drink on their way; this way they have the fluids, and we’re assuming that when they get to their new home, it’ll take them a little while to orient and find fluids.
“It’s like a warm, cozy cup of tea for the birds before they travel,” she said. “That’s how I think of it, anyway.” Tyl credits Russell’s and Long’s work with the high survival rates of birds from capture to release.
“We haven’t had a single bird die during transport,” she said. “To have that sort of success for something that is so potentially stressful, really, we owe a lot of that to the vets because they came up with this processing protocol, and they’re the ones who advised the transportation protocol and how we should go through that process.”
Once #147 and #148 — along with the other eight birds captured this day — are processed, they are returned to their boxes and loaded into the waiting van for the overnight trip to Missouri. At 10 p.m., drivers Terry Bertholomey, an MDC outdoor education center manager, and Tony Spicci, an MDC geographic information system supervisor, begin the long, cool, quiet overnight drive.
“We provide very specific instructions to the transporters to keep the vehicle temperature cool and quiet, and the idea behind that is just to reduce any sort of stress to these birds,” Tyl said.
Such driving conditions, including no talking and no radio, make the roughly 10-hour trip challenging, Bertholomey said.
“The biggest problem was really just staying awake, because, you know, it’s quiet, you’re not talking, there’s not much going on, and the birds didn’t make a sound,” he said.
About an hour from their destination, the transporters text Daniel Boone Conservation Area Manager Jeff Bakameyer, who escorts them to the release site about 9 a.m. As a reward for the overnight bird delivery,
Bertholomey and Spicci participate in the release, but the challenging drive is followed by a challenging hike, Spicci said.
“It’s not like you just drive into a parking lot, open the doors and let the birds go,” he said. “It’s a predetermined spot, and it’s off road quite a bit. You’re also releasing them a distance from where the actual vehicles are into an area — and they’ve kind of got it set up so the birds will release away from where we are and not get harmed.”
Just as with every other leg of the journey, the final and shortest leg for #147 and #148 is taken with care, even as it becomes a little more difficult on foot, he said.
“It’s a very delicate transport,” he said. “You have to be very careful, and of course, where our release site is, there’s some poison ivy here, a tree to step over there, and so you’re doing this very delicate walk to where they want you to release the birds.”
And while the other birds come out of their boxes at, different speeds and levels of enthusiasm — ranging from staying nearby to not wanting to leave the box at all — #147 and #148, released together because they were captured together, explode out of the box, flying to the nearby woods, which is the best sign of how they handled the trip, Tyl said.
“When we see them just take off like that, it’s them saying, ‘I’m healthy; I’m good to go; I just spent all night resting in a box, and I’m ready to get out of here’,” she said.