American bird hunters are blessed with millions of acres of public land where they can pursue upland gamebirds. But one aspect of access sometimes overlooked is whether the land open to hunters actually holds strong populations of game to pursue. What most bird hunters want to know, particularly on federal public lands, is: “Why are there fewer birds than in the recent past?”
There are a number of factors contributing to this problem, but the primary reason is the lack of quality wildlife habitat. This stems in large part from the misuse of federal laws and regulations by groups opposed to active forest management, as well as fire-borrowing, the practice by which funds are diverted from other conservation programs to pay for the suppression of catastrophic wildfires.
Whether it’s northern bobwhite quail, American woodcock, or ruffed grouse, the chief culprit contributing to declining or stagnant upland bird populations on federal public land is the lack of active forest management. While there are other contributing factors, habitat is the one factor we are most capable of having an impact on, through management grounded in science and supported by sound policy. Better habitat means better nesting success, better recruitment, better survival rates, and, ultimately, better hunting. Upland gamebirds and many nongame species—including some birds that previously were thought to prefer only mature forests—depend on young, regenerating forests and early successional habitats. Unfortunately, these habitats are in short supply on federal public lands throughout the country.
Federal public land agencies, including the United States Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), are guided by multiple-use, sustained-yield mandates. In contrast to the National Park Service (NPS), these agencies manage for a range of uses, including recreation, grazing, watershed protection, fish and wildlife habitats, and timber harvesting, among others.
Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the USFS, and President Teddy Roosevelt purposefully established the USFS for conservation purposes, not for “hands-off” preservation. Conservation, according to Pinchot, is the “wise use of the Earth and its resources for the lasting good of men.” Today, however, Pinchot’s philosophy that “conflicting interests” should be reconciled by analyzing “the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run” seems lost in a sea of systematic opposition by special interest groups to sustainable forest management on national forest land.
Timber harvesting levels on federal public lands have declined precipitously over the last few decades, and populations of disturbance-dependent wildlife species have declined as a result. On my local national forests in North Carolina, the Nantahala and Pisgah, for example, the acres harvested by regeneration methods declined from more than 5,000 acres in 1988 to around 500 acres in 2008. Not coincidentally, among avid grouse hunters who participate in a state survey, the average number of grouse flushed per hunting trip decreased over the same time period by more than 50 percent; the average number of grouse bagged per hunting trip decreased by 41 percent; and the percentage of hunts with no grouse flushed increased from roughly 11 percent to 30 percent. The problem is not limited to birds, as antlered deer harvests during the same time period also declined by more than 50 percent.
Over the last 15 years, the average number of acres harvested on the Nantahala-Pisgah is fewer than 860 acres per year. Similarly, in Virginia, on the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests (GWJEFF), timber harvest rates are very low. On the 1.8 million acres of national forests in the state, an average of only 622 acres per year were harvested from fiscal year 2007 to fiscal year 2016, which is .035 percent of the national forest land in Virginia. From 1991 to 2011, timber harvests on the GWJEFF decreased by 80 percent.
Upland gamebirds and other wildlife species are the casualties of declining timber harvests, as early successional habitats on federal public land are represented across the landscape at levels far below percentages recommended by professional wildlife managers, which range from 8 to 12 percent or more. Long-term downward trends in young forests have led to shorter grouse seasons, no either-sex deer harvest days on public land, and the closure of all public-land quail hunting west of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. In Indiana, habitat conditions are so poor that grouse are on the brink of extirpation from the state.
As active habitat management levels decline on federal public land, the consequences to the hunting community are real. Decreased forest management activity has contributed to declining game species populations, lower hunter harvest rates, and consequently lower hunter participation rates, which negatively affects conservation funding as fewer hunters purchase hunting licenses. License sales are a key component of the American system of conservation funding, the unique “user pays, public benefits” structure that provides the vast majority of funding for state fish and wildlife agencies. As fewer sportsmen and sportswomen pursue upland gamebirds, conservation funding decreases. Additionally, the economies of rural communities are affected as fewer dollars are spent on food, gas, lodging, and supplies.
Where active habitat management does occur on public land, the benefits to wildlife and hunters are tangible. For example, on Virginia’s state forests and wildlife management areas, which are actively managed, turkey hunters harvest roughly one bird per 500 acres, compared to the national forests in Virginia, where turkey hunters harvest roughly one bird per 1,900 acres.
These are not isolated examples, as bird hunters and wildlife enthusiasts well know. Young forest habitats are in short supply as national forests across the country are failing to meet their minimum goals for young forests. The consequences are not relevant only to hunters and game species, as significant declines in young forest habitats negatively impact many nongame animals as well, many of which are species of conservation concern. Habitat diversity, which is most effectively created through science-based habitat management, is critical for species diversity and forest health.
Public land can be managed sustainably for timber resources, wildlife, and hunting as well as other forms of recreation. State-owned public lands in Virginia, Michigan, and other states with active forest and wildlife management habitat programs demonstrate that active habitat management is not incompatible with quality nonconsumptive recreational experiences. Hikers, bikers, and horseback riders utilize state forests, and wildlife management areas in many states with high user satisfaction. More importantly to hunters, the fact that public land can be managed for multiple uses should inspire hope for better bird hunting.
Why is federal public land not actively managed at levels sufficient to support robust upland bird populations? There are a host of reasons, but the primary reasons include the increasing costs of fire suppression efforts, fire-borrowing, litigation, decreased staffing levels, and other inefficient forest management policies. The proportion of the USFS budget that is used to fund fire suppression efforts has increased from 16 percent in 1995 to 52 percent in 2015; and funds that would otherwise be utilized for a variety of purposes, including vegetation management and wildlife, recreation, and land management planning are raided. The costs of fighting catastrophic wildfires, which occur mainly in the Western states, negatively affect the budgets of national forests across the country, limiting the USFS’s capacity to implement projects that would benefit wildlife. Additionally, serial litigants abuse federal policies to thwart habitat restoration and forest health improvement projects to the detriment of taxpayers, forest health, rural communities, and wildlife.
Fortunately, there a number of federal legislative efforts underway with bipartisan support that would change the way federal land management agencies fund wildfire fighting costs, encourage collaboration, streamline environmental review processes, and curtail litigation, with varying approaches to each component. Supporting policy reforms to the current system of federal land management—including providing categorical exclusions from exhaustive environmental reviews—are many hunting conservation organizations, including the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, that understand the need to improve the way federal land is managed. Addressing fire-borrowing is only part of the solution: Forest management reforms must be coupled with a fire-borrowing remedy.
There are upwards of 80 million acres of national forest lands that are in need of restoration to improve forest health, protect watersheds and communities, improve wildlife habitats, and improve the resiliency of forests in the face of increasing threats from catastrophic wildfires, invasive species, insects, and disease. Active forest management practices grounded in sound science, including thinning, prescribed fire, and other silvicultural treatments, are the best way to achieve landscape-level restoration goals, including supporting a diversity of wildlife habitats and strong wildlife populations.
After decades of research and on-the-ground practice, wildlife biologists and foresters have a strong understanding of the biology and habitat needs of upland birds. To halt the decline of grouse, woodcock, quail, and other upland bird populations, as well as to maintain strong hunter interest, it is time for policymakers to enact changes that provide land management agencies with better tools to support upland bird conservation and habitat restoration.
Since 1989, the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CSF) has maintained a singleness of purpose that has guided the organization to become the most respected and trusted sportsmen’s organization in the political arena. CSF’s mission is to work with Congress, governors, and state legislatures to protect and advance hunting, angling, recreational shooting, and trapping. For more about CSF, please visit congressionalsportsmen.org.