New York State
Ornithological Association

For the birders and birds of the Empire State

ConservationPosted 7/16/12
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NYSOA Comments on the
NYS Environmental Conservation Department's
Draft Spruce Grouse Recovery Plan

Joan Collins, NYSOA Conservation Committee

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation released a draft "Recovery Plan for New York State Populations of the Spruce Grouse (Falcipennis Canadensis)" on February 1, 2012 with a 30-day comment period. The 84 page draft document can be accessed at: Given the decline in the Spruce Grouse population in New York, and models that the authors use that show an 85% probability that the species will be extirpated from the Adirondacks within 100 years (and a 35% probability the species could be extirpated by 2020), they recommend several actions. Two of the actions include reintroductions at two extirpated sites and habitat management. Sixty Spruce Grouse would be reintroduced (30 at each site). The birds would probably come from Canada and go through a 30 day quarantine to be fully screened for avian diseases and parasites before being released into an extirpated site. NYSOA submitted the following comments on the draft plan:

The "Recovery Plan for New York State Populations of the Spruce Grouse" written by Angelena M. Ross and Glenn Johnson is a well researched and organized plan "to guide actions" for achieving a "self-sustaining population of Spruce Grouse". This once abundant species in New York State has been greatly harmed during the past century and a half by the human activities of logging, river damming, hunting, road creation, and development. One "oldtimer" in the Adirondacks still recalls his childhood when hunters walked up to trees full of the tame Spruce Grouse – and then shot them all. To observe a species so precipitously decline in the span of a human lifetime is certainly a tragedy.

That said, have all of the known, historical, and potential Spruce Grouse sites been surveyed? The draft states there was a plan to survey 60 sites in 2010, but only 10 were actually surveyed. There continue to be sightings in northeastern Hamilton County (west of Long Lake) – as recently as 2011. Potential habitat (with appropriate wetland corridors) was also identified during the second breeding bird atlas in Hamilton County near the northeastern border with Franklin County (very remote areas reached with long bushwhacks). A male Spruce Grouse was observed near South Meadow in Essex County several years ago (which would represent a population at almost 2100 feet). A male Spruce Grouse was observed in May 2011 at Massawepie Mire by a group of birders, one of the known locations listed in the draft, but this date was not included. With a high probability that the species can be found in areas not listed in the draft, there seems to be a need for more surveys to have a comprehensive distributional map of where the species can currently be found.

Spruce Grouse populations have declined in New York State, but are doing quite well across their range to the north. It is not a species in threat of extinction. New York represents the southern edge of the Spruce Grouse breeding range, where the species exists in fragmented habitat. Reintroducing Spruce Grouse to extirpated New York sites from locations outside New York and manipulating boreal habitat represent labor-intensive measures with unknown consequences. What happened to the Spruce Grouse reintroduced into Vermont in 2008? How will manipulating Spruce Grouse habitat affect other species?

The Bald Eagle and Peregrine Falcon reintroductions in northern New York went well since the birds had appropriate habitat in which to live (and no more threats from DDT). Moose and beavers have made their way back to the Adirondacks on their own. Reintroducing Spruce Grouse into extirpated sites, where former Spruce Grouse perished due to habitat issues, is a bit of a gamble. Unnaturally manipulating Spruce Grouse habitat in order to hang onto one species that is not in threat of extinction may end up harming other species.

It is quite possible that Spruce Grouse will persist in appropriate habitat areas without intervention – particularly remote areas where the human influences listed above are not a threat. The great unknown is the continued effects of climate change on boreal habitat. One of the predicted effects of climate change, high wind storms, is already a factor and taking a heavy toll on the forests. For example, the mature spruce/fir forest at Massawepie Mire, in one of the Spruce Grouse areas, has suffered quite a bit of damage from high winds – with the resultant low herbaceous growth from the sudden opening of the canopy from blown-down trees. It is possible that one of the draft plan goals, to manipulate Spruce Grouse habitat to encourage low herbaceous growth, may actually happen naturally from the extreme storms of our changed climate.

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At this time, it seems more appropriate to watch the results of the Vermont experiment of reintroducing Spruce Grouse and manipulating their habitat before replicating these actions in New York. Certainly, most of the other actions in the draft plan make sense – continue to monitor extant Spruce Grouse populations and survey extirpated and potential new sites; educate the public (including hunters); work with private landowners to conserve habitat; and continue genetic comparisons between extant and other populations outside of New York. The DEC will need to decide if it makes sense to spend limited resources to take on the labor-intensive measures described in the draft plan to save a species within the state that is not in threat of extinction.

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