HARRISBURG, Pa., Oct. 1, 2012 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Pennsylvania Game Commission biologists expect ruffed grouse hunting to be average to slightly-below average for the nearly 100,000 hunters who annually pursue these challenging game birds.
"Conditions for over-wintering, incubating and brooding should have supported good reproduction this year," said Lisa Williams, Game Commission grouse and woodcock biologist. "However, our Game Commission field staff observed fewer adult grouse and grouse broods this summer compared to prior years. Those sightings are often the best predictor of the season, so I advise hunters to hope for the best but keep their expectations realistic. Find areas of good dense cover and abundant food supply and you'll put yourself in the best position for success."
The first segment of the state's three-part grouse season opens Saturday, Oct. 13, and runs through Nov. 24. The season reopens Dec. 10 to 24, and then again from Dec. 26 to Jan. 26. Participating hunters must have a valid Pennsylvania hunting license and follow the regulations that govern this rugged sport of brush-busting and mountain-scampering. Wherever you hunt grouse, there is ample reason to carve out some time afield this season. Just be sure to take time to locate high-quality coverts that provide a good mix of food and cover.
"Losses of young forest habitat over the last several decades have been bad news for grouse, woodcock and other species that rely on these habitats," said Ian Gregg, Game Commission Game Bird Section supervisor. "Our forests are getting older, and that's a negative for grouse. But, the good news is that the Game Commission is taking an active approach to improving the situation for grouse and other species that rely on young forests. We have Grouse and Woodcock management plans that call for aggressive management of young forest habitats, and Game Commission staff in all regions are actively working to create suitable habitat – not only on State Game Lands, but on cooperating State Forests and other public and private lands. This work benefits multiple species and our efforts have received an overwhelmingly positive response from the public and from our conservation partners."
Pennsylvania's state bird is holding its own in areas of suitable habitat, and in some areas, thriving. Statewide, the Game Commission's 314 active Grouse Cooperators hunted 7,787 hours and recorded 10,249 flushes for an average rate of 1.32 flushes per hour during the 2011-2012 grouse season. This 2011-2012 flush rate was equal to that of the previous season but six percent below the long term (46-year) average of 1.41 flushes per hour. Embedded in those statewide averages, however, are memorable hunting experiences, with many hunters recording four to five flushes per hour in areas of good food and cover.
Williams noted that Pennsylvania consistently maintains the highest flush rates among nearby states such as Kentucky, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, West Virginia and Virginia.
"Grouse flush trends in most of our neighboring states show a continuing long term decline," Williams said. "Over the past six to seven years, Pennsylvania flush rates have exceeded those of all neighboring states. During that time, our grouse population index has stabilized in some regions that were previously declining, and even increased in some portions of the Commonwealth. Anecdotal reports from grouse hunters as well as agency land managers and foresters suggest that forest understory conditions have improved for grouse as deer numbers were brought back into balance with their forest habitats. I intend to further investigate this link between deer impacts, forest habitat quality and grouse numbers."
Grouse hunting remains a popular fall pursuit in Pennsylvania. According to the agency's Game Take Survey, an estimated 80,000 hunters took 52,000 grouse during the 2011-12 seasons, during 350,000 days afield. Though fewer than in the past, grouse hunters remain passionate about their quarry, and the ruffed grouse remains a popular game bird in the Commonwealth. Yet grouse hunter numbers remain well below those of the mid-1980s when Pennsylvania had more than 400,000 hunters pursuing the thunderbird.
"Several hunters have told me they can hunt all day and not see another grouse hunter," says Williams. "For hunters seeking a season with a little more elbow room yet plenty of challenge, you might want to consider grouse hunting."
The Game Commission conducts a Summer Sighting Survey in which Game Commission foresters and surveyors record numbers of broods and individual grouse seen while working in the woods during June, July and August. Trends in hunters' fall flush rates follow those of the summer survey about 80 percent of the time, so this information is used to develop the season forecast.
"Sightings of adult grouse during the summer of 2012 were down roughly 40 percent and brood sightings were down 25 percent compared to last year," Williams said. "Looking a bit further back over time, observations of both adults and broods this summer are down 25 percent from the most recent 10- year averages. So in spite of what I believe was a good year for reproduction, I'm forecasting an average to slightly below-average grouse season in 2012-13. This makes it particularly important to understand the characteristics of good grouse habitat, locate high-quality coverts, and focus your efforts there."
Grouse and woodcock hunters are urged to participate in the Game Commission's Grouse Cooperator Survey, which enables the agency to monitor long-term changes in grouse populations in good habitats. Hunters of all skill levels are welcome, no matter how many days they are able to devote to grouse or woodcock hunting. For each day hunted, participants are asked to record the county and number of hours hunted, and number of grouse and woodcock flushed and bagged.
Hunters interested in participating in the Cooperator Survey are asked to contact the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Bureau of Wildlife Management by calling 717-787-5529, or writing to: Pennsylvania Game Commission, ATTN: Grouse Cooperator Survey, 2001 Elmerton Ave., Harrisburg, PA 17110-9797. New Cooperators will receive a copy of the annual newsletter provided to all survey participants and all forms needed for the upcoming season.
"Though cooperator information is presented as state or region averages, it is important to remember that statewide trends do not apply equally throughout Pennsylvania," Williams emphasized. She groups Pennsylvania regions into three categories, as far as grouse hunting prospects:
1) Northwest and Northcentral: good to excellent. These regions are consistently the top two in the state and have maintained grouse flush rates at or above their long-term averages in recent years. The rate of timber harvest over the next few decades in this part of Pennsylvania may put enough land into good grouse cover that the "good old days" are just ahead. The six contiguous counties of Warren, Forest, McKean, Potter, Elk, and Cameron typically have the highest flush rates in the state and offer plenty of acreage in public and open-access private lands for hunters looking for new coverts.
2) Southwest, Southcentral and Northeast: fair. These regions maintain intermediate flush rates and habitat conditions with somewhat less extensive overall forest cover and lower rates of active forest management at a large landscape scale. From 2010-2011 to 2011-2012, flush rates increased slightly or remained stable in each of these regions.
3) Southeast: fair in areas north of the Blue Mountain and poor south of it. Large parcels of forest habitat in southeastern Pennsylvania were already scarce and this region has lost early successional habitat even more rapidly than the rest of the state. Consequently, grouse hunting opportunities in the agricultural and urban-dominated landscapes south of the Blue Mountain are extremely limited. Again, locating high-quality habitat is key and taking the time to scout for grouse food and cover hotspots prior to the season may pay dividends.
Grouse hunters are reminded to wear at least 250 square inches of fluorescent orange clothing on the head, chest and back combined at all times; limit hunting parties to no more than six individuals; and plug shotguns to three-shell capacity (magazine and chamber combined).
SQUIRRELS ABOUND IN PENNSYLVANIA'S FORESTS AND WOODLOTS
If there's one game animal that could use some additional attention in Pennsylvania, it's squirrels, according to Pennsylvania Game Commission biologists. Squirrel season opens on Oct. 13, and runs through Nov. 24. The season reopens on Dec. 10-24, and Dec. 26-Feb. 23. The daily limit is six.
Squirrel populations have been enjoying the benefits of declining hunting pressure and the maturation of habitat in the state for some time. These factors have spurred fox squirrel range expansion and recovery. The calculated squirrel harvest has been relatively stable over the past seven years, ranging from 530,125 to 784,741. Last year, an estimated 690,141 squirrels were harvested by hunters.
"Gray squirrels are our most abundant game species and are found throughout Pennsylvania," said Tom Hardisky, Game Commission biologist. "Look for mast-producing trees such as walnut, butternut, oak and hickory when searching for the best hunting areas. In agricultural areas, woodlots in the vicinity of standing cornfields often support large numbers of squirrels. They can be found throughout deep woods areas."
Squirrel populations may be reduced in areas where last year's mast crop failed or was extremely poor. Winter survival is largely determined by the available food supply cached by squirrels during the previous fall. If overwinter survival of females was poor and body condition of survivors weakened, squirrel numbers will likely be reduced this fall in those areas. Adult gray and fox squirrels older than 14 months can have two litters with two to three young each year under favorable food conditions. During food-stressed years, one litter is typical.
Annual food abundance and corresponding body condition of female squirrels are key factors limiting population growth.
Hardisky noted that the black squirrel is actually a color phase of the gray squirrel. In general, black squirrels can be found in the northern half of Pennsylvania. Squirrels with this black color variation often occur in local concentrations scattered about their northern Pennsylvania range.
"Fox squirrels are up to 50 percent larger than gray squirrels and weigh about two pounds," Hardisky said. "Fox squirrels have been expanding their range eastward in recent years and now inhabit much of the western half of Pennsylvania. They prefer more open areas than gray squirrels and are not found in the deep woods. Fox squirrels favor open fields and pastures with large trees nearby. Small woodlots and forest edges are typical fox squirrel haunts.
"Although some gray squirrels may possess orange coloration along their sides and tails, fox and gray squirrels do not interbreed, nor do gray and red squirrels. Each squirrel species has some color variation, even within local populations. However, this color variation largely results from genetic differences. Local diet, habitat, and climate differences also may contribute to color variation."
When hunting squirrels, Hardisky said hunters should look for large-trunked trees near a food source. Larger trees offer better protection from predators and are favorite den sites. Gray squirrels are most active during the early morning and evening, while fox squirrels often travel during mid-day.
Pennsylvania's youth squirrel hunt is Oct. 6-12. The season is open to youths 12 to 16 years of age who have successfully completed a Hunter-Trapper Education course and are properly accompanied by an adult. A hunting license is not required to participate.
Hunters also are reminded that squirrels are listed as a game animal that can be pursued by youngsters participating in the Mentored Youth Hunting Program, which permits those under the age of 12 to hunt under the guidance of a mentor.
Squirrel hunters are required to wear at least 250 square inches of fluorescent orange clothing, visible 360 degrees, at all times.
TAKE A VETERAN HUNTING FOR SMALL GAME SEASONS
Pennsylvania Game Commission officials, in partnership with the state chapters of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), are encouraging hunters to help veterans discover or rediscover the thrills and joys of hunting in Pennsylvania, including small game seasons that will be open, especially on Veterans Day, which will be observed on Monday, Nov. 12.
To recognize those who step up to serve as volunteer guides for a veteran, the Game Commission will conduct a drawing to present six framed fine-art wildlife prints. To be eligible for one of the prints, a participating hunter must submit a brief e-mail that outlines the name and address of the veteran taken afield, type of hunting taken part in, and county where the shared hunt took place. American Legion or VFW members who take another veteran hunting also should include their member number.
All participating hunters, including those not affiliated with the American Legion or VFW must send an e-mail to either email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. A drawing will be held to select the six winners from all e-mails received by Dec. 31, 2012.
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SOURCE Pennsylvania Game Commission