HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s state bird, the ruffed grouse, has suffered dramatic population losses due to the statewide scarcity of young forests and large-scale West Nile virus die-offs. To offset those losses, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has created a tool to identify prime grouse recovery areas.
“The Game Commission recognizes that all conservation partners must work smarter, not just harder, to restore the King of Thunder,” said Lisa Williams, the agency grouse biologist who identified West Nile’s role in Pennsylvania’s grouse-population collapse. “It’s not enough to simply create grouse habitat. For best success, habitat must be created in areas buffered from disease-carrying mosquitoes and close to existing grouse populations so birds can quickly colonize new sites.”
The Grouse Priority Area Siting Tool identifies areas with landscape features that stave off mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus. When combined with information on local grouse populations, G-PAST identifies priority sites where disease risk is low and probability of grouse benefit is high.
G-PAST has the potential to be a game-changer in grouse restoration, because it focuses the attention of all conservation partners on areas where grouse can best recover.
“We know high-quality grouse habitat is the best way to offset losses from West Nile virus,” said Matthew Schnupp, Game Commission Bureau of Wildlife Management director. “But if we create better grouse habitat in places with high disease risk, we may be setting grouse up to fail.
“This tool combines cutting-edge geographic-information-system analysis with our wildlife research and habitat-management information to identify where we can best help grouse. It’s an approach that puts us in the best position possible to help our state bird.”
G-PAST can be used by habitat partners to focus habitat restoration, develop grant proposals, initiate collaborations at priority sites, enlist high-priority private landowners, and guide their own local clubs and chapters on where to undertake habitat projects.
“G-PAST is a great example of how leveraging geospatial technology in decision-making can advance objectives and goals throughout the agency and among our partners,” said Bob Blystone, the GIS technician who created the tool.
“Agency foresters and land managers have been rapidly increasing efforts to restore the whole community of species that rely on young forests,” explained Pete Sussenbach, Game Commission Bureau of Wildlife Habitat Management director. “Creating healthy forests through management provides unique opportunities to meet many different wildlife-management objectives. The agency strives to improve forest health and resilience, and wildlife health and abundance, all at once. G-PAST is the key. It provides a level of guidance unknown in grouse conservation before now.”
Williams said she’s now more optimistic about the potential for meaningful grouse management than she’s been in years.
“Our research on West Nile virus since 2015 has always had one focused goal: Find a way to mitigate West Nile virus impacts so we can recover populations,” Williams explained. “There are many issues facing grouse, but G-PAST is making solid progress on mitigating the two primary drivers of decline: habitat loss and disease exposure.”
Now, anyone in Pennsylvania can look at the G-PAST map and identify the best areas to invest in grouse habitat work, Williams noted.
“Whether you’re a landowner with 20 acres or a land manager with 20,000 acres, G-PAST shows where you can best benefit grouse,” Williams said.
“Although the tool was developed with grouse in mind, we’re excited to incorporate G-PAST in our management efforts for other declining species, such as the Canada Warbler,” said Dan Brauning, Game Commission Wildlife Diversity Division chief.
G-PAST provides important siting information for species that occur in high elevations, species that rely on young forests, and the many other wild birds that are susceptible to West Nile virus, Brauning said.
G-PAST supports at least a half-dozen habitat objectives in the agency’s Pennsylvania Ruffed Grouse Plan. The Game Commission has several large-scale habitat restoration projects planned or already being implemented in high-priority landscapes identified by G-PAST. The identification of landscape-scale restoration priorities can serve as a model for other Eastern states to proactively restore grouse where it makes the most sense.
To check out G-PAST, go to http://bit.ly/PGCG-Past. Once there, zoom into your area of interest. G-PAST uses a color-coded format of Good (orange), Better (blue) and Best (purple), so it’s easy to find important restoration sites in an area. There also are links to view a quick how-to tutorial, to contact the Game Commission grouse biologist and to view agency webinars on grouse management. More-advanced users can upload their own GIS data layers to see if their projects fall into grouse priority areas. All users can contact the agency grouse biologist to find out if local grouse populations occur in an area where they plan to create habitat.