DEC bolsters the Adirondacks’ shrinking population of spruce grouse by bringing in specimens from Maine and Canada.
By Mike Lynch
Once abundant in the Adirondacks, the spruce grouse has struggled for much of the past century, but now scientists are trying to bolster the dwindling population by importing birds from out of state.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation released three spruce grouse last year and thirty this year, according to Angelena Ross, a biologist with the department.
The three birds released last year were adult females from Ontario. Only one survived the winter, and it was killed by a hawk in the spring.
In August, DEC released twelve adults and eighteen juveniles captured in Maine at three sites in the Adirondacks— two on private land, one in the Forest Preserve— near Tupper Lake and Paul Smiths.
Ross said the birds are monitored daily through radio telemetry.
“Unfortunately, we lost a few due to radio-transmitter malfunction, but most of the adults that we released are still being monitored and are in or near their release areas,” Ross said via email.
She had hoped to release grouse at a fourth site where the birds had lived until the 1980s, but not enough birds were captured to allow that. “There appears to be quality habitat at that site, and we wanted to know if individuals would establish at that location,” Ross said.
DEC plans to release more spruce grouse as early as next summer.
Spruce grouse prefer lowland boreal habitats dominated by black spruce, balsam fir, and eastern tamarack, which often grow near bogs and streams. In the Adirondacks, the grouse’s prime territory ranged from Massawepie Mire in the west to Bloomingdale Bog in the east.
Scientists believe the bird’s decline in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century in the Adirondacks was tied to loss of habitat caused by softwood logging, increased development, a spruce beetle blight, and the damming of rivers.
It’s uncertain how many birds remain in the Adirondacks, but Ross said there may be fewer than seventy-five. DEC listed the spruce grouse as threatened in 1983 and endangered in 1999.
Although DEC wants to bolster the population, Ross said the primary goal now is to see if a larger reintroduction would succeed. The radio-telemetry devices will provide information about the size of the new birds’ home range, which can then be compared to the ranges of the native birds.
“If home-range sizes are similar between the two groups, it means that the released birds are not moving over greater distances, which means that they are finding everything they need to survive (food, cover, mates) and may further indicate that they are not under more stress than resident grouse,” Ross said in the email. “Also, radio telemetry allows us to monitor individuals’ survivorship rates and even nest productivity. Comparing these types of life-history parameters allows us to better gauge project success. We would like to see that there are no differences in these metrics before we undergo a large translocation effort.”
In addition to bolstering the population, Ross hopes the reintroduction will increase the genetic diversity of the Park’s grouse. Scientists are collecting DNA from the birds for analysis. This will give them a better idea of how much genetic variation there is in each subpopulation and perhaps allow them to better estimate the size of the overall population.
The scientists also are improving spruce-grouse habitat on private lands and evaluating whether the birds are using it. Spruce grouse prefer early-succession and midsuccession softwood forests, which are less common in the Adirondacks than in the past. To simulate this habitat, scientists are creating openings in the forest.
“The factors and forces that kept [the forest] open are not operating as much anymore,” said Glenn Johnson, a biology professor at the State University College at Potsdam. “You’re never going to see a big fire in the Adirondacks because they are going to be suppressed. Things like [insect] outbreaks have been managed, so to get to those early- and mid-successional stages, you have to do some cutting.”
Ross studied under Johnson, and together they wrote the Spruce Grouse Recovery Plan, which was adopted by DEC in 2012.
Although preserving an endangered bird might seem like a worthy goal, at least one expert thinks it’s a waste of scant wildlife funds. Larry Master, a zoologist from Lake Placid, contends that because of climate change, the spruce grouse is unlikely to survive in the Adirondacks anyway.
Master also notes that the spruce grouse, though endangered here, exists in large numbers across Canada.
“I love spruce grouse. I’ve taken lots of pictures of them over the years and different parts of their range. I enjoy watching them. They’re really incredibly tame and neat to watch, but I’m not in favor of spending limited resources to try to save them in New York,” said Master, who sits on the Explorer board of directors.
Johnson said information gained from DEC’s work could be used to help the bird in Canada as the climate changes there. Moreover, he said the state should try to preserve the bird as long as it’s here. Otherwise, one major calamity—such as a big ice storm—could wipe out the entire Adirondack population.
Without DEC’s intervention on behalf of spruce grouse, he added, “they’ll just keeping circling that drain until the last one’s gone.”