Ruffed Grouse Habitat in Change

This is what September snow does to the aspens.


It’s now mid November and that means several things.

First, next week is Thanksgiving, the day we set aside for being thankful for abundance. That also means that Montana’s long general elk and deer season is more than half gone. In fact, it’s just a week and a half away from the close of the season at sunset on November 26. That’s also a stern reminder to me, as well as anybody else reading this.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t been out hunting.

My last hunt (as of a week ago) was on the last day of October. Besides being Halloween it also turned out to be the last day of autumn.

My ruffed grouse season has been kind of topsy-turvy this fall. First, we had almost unbearably hot and dry weather the first couple weeks of September that kept me out of the aspen thickets, and we went right from that to an early taste of winter that dumped a foot or more of wet heavy snow in the mountains.

I think of the aspen and brushy habitat where ruffed grouse live as a work in progress. It’s a dynamic environment that’s in constant change. Change can be good or bad, and sometimes it’s just plain frustrating.

For example, there’s a hillside aspen thicket I’ve hunted for almost 30 years. I’ve had fun days and difficult days in this grouse covert, but the last time I went there I couldn’t find it. It might seem hard to believe, but bear with me.

When I started hunting that spot in the fall of 1988, I’d park on the edge of the road that goes through the area and walk across grassland, interspersed with small pine trees. Over the years those small pines have grown up into a forest so thick and tall it totally obscures that aspen-covered hillside where I’d hunted so many times, and the last time I wandered through the pines I got turned around and found myself a mile from where I wanted to be. As they say, I wasn’t lost, but I was certainly momentarily confused.

An aspen forest is usually a young forest. As aspen trees mature, they provide shade to emerging conifers and at some point the conifers start taking over. In a couple of my hunting spots I started thinking that we needed a controlled burn or logging operation to get rid of the pine trees that were taking over my ruffed grouse habitat. As it happened, the mountain pine beetle outbreak that devastated our pine forests in the last decade did close to a clean sweep of the lodgepole pine stands that threatened the aspen thickets.

Now, several years after pine beetles killed the pine trees, the trees are falling, as their roots decay. It’s a healthy progression, as the fallen trees open up the forest canopy to generate new growth. In some places, however, there are so many down trees in the forest that it’s about impossible to walk through.

On this Halloween day hunt, I was trying to walk through grouse habitat that was all but impassable from fallen pine trees, with the additional complication of aspen trees that had been bent or broken by that mid-September snowstorm. It was almost impossible, when it came to picking my way through.

It doesn’t bother the grouse. In fact, a grouse flushed within seconds of when Kiri, our Labrador retriever, and I walked into the trees. I had just a momentary glimpse of the bird as it flew to safety. For her part, Kiri didn’t have any particular difficulty, as she scampered in and through the brush and downed and broken trees.

Kiri is enjoying her outing in the aspens

I won’t complain, however. Those downed trees will eventually decay, or burn up in some future fire, wild or controlled, and make way for a regenerated patch of wildlife habitat.

In the meantime, I’ll grumble as I stumble, though it’ll probably be next September. With the abrupt change to winter and heavy snow, I’ll most likely let the ruffed grouse go about their business of winter survival.

2 thoughts on “Ruffed Grouse Habitat in Change

  1. Great wood for the stove, that lodgepole. ‘Ruined a chain hoist just trying to get a leaner off the stump, near Clarkia this year.
    Thinking of changing favorite aspen forest, or did the grouse just get lucky? Ecologically speaking, a scientist could gag on the data available in a pest-mediated changing forest zone like this one.

  2. It’s also good for the fireplace, and thanks to the mountain pine beetle there is an abundance of dead lodgepole pine for fireplaces and stoves. And as for the grouse, they’re usually lucky when I’m hunting them. I might have a shotgun but they can fly behind trees. In this particular grouse covert the State did a big habitat project, clear-cutting a big swath of dead lodgepole and aging aspen. Aspens are regenerating. I’m hoping I’m still able to hunt when things have grown enough to support a new generation of grouse. I have other spots where the pines are just on the ground, completing their life’s mission. Like I say, the aspen habitat is a dynamic environment and, yes, scientists could spend their life studying the myriad of changes.

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