Bush bashing by John C. Street
Bush bashing, if common sense would only prevail, could quickly become a thing of the past. But there’s little reason to be optimistic. Old prejudices die hard. Still, there are a few (something just over 100,000 to be exact) of us who are keeping our fingers crossed.
According to a recent press release put out by Pennsylvania Game Commission, their staff “biologists expect ruffed grouse hunting to be average to slightly above average” this year. But it will be “average to slightly above average,” only “where good habitat exists.”
Unfortunately, though, for those of us who just happen to know where some of that “good habitat” is, we may quickly discover that a bird in hand is about all we’ll get because there’s a declining amount of that habitat to hold the other two proverbial birds.
Just how unfortunate this situation really is was confirmed by Ian Gregg, the PGC’s Game Bird Section Supervisor. “Christmas Bird Count and [the] 2nd Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas data suggest,” Greg revealed, “that overall grouse populations have declined 30 to 50 percent since the early 1980s.”
This decline in the grouse population comes as “no surprise,” Gregg explained, “given that over that same period, even though our total forested acreage was pretty stable, the percentage in seedling/sapling cover declined from about 20 percent to 12 percent.
“Simply put,” the PGC’s game bird biologist summarized, “our forests are getting older, and that’s a negative for grouse.” And, he might have added – but didn’t – it’s a “negative” for a lot of other game and non-game species as well.
Wildlife researchers have amply documented, for instance, that a whole laundry list of creatures like the seldom seen frosted elfin butterfly (Incisalia irus) and other, more recognizable species like the New England cottontail, the golden-winged warbler and the eastern towhee are also dependent on that seedling/sapling cover for survival.
In fact, when the entire laundry list is rolled out, this research into the life and times of our wildlife reveals that fifty percent of our bird species and almost sixty percent of all mammal species require a combination of early, mid and late “successional stands” of regenerating forest at some important stage in their life cycle.
So why do people continue with this bush bashing?
Although a bit dated, a possible explanation was published in the December 2000 issue of the JOURNAL OF FORESTRY. In this august publication, John Bliss, the Starker Chair in Private and Family Forestry at Oregon State University, explained that “many people associate clearcutting with deforestation ….. and above all, [the] industrialization of natural landscapes.”
After extensive research, Professor Bliss discovered that forest health and sustainability are secondary to whether or not the silvicultural practices are “socially acceptable.” If forestry management practices are unacceptable, even if the unacceptability is based on visual perception rather than sound science, “it will be modified until it is acceptable - or it will be eliminated.”
And this led the professor to conclude that the “conditions that arise [within a forest], as a result of natural causes [such as wind and fire] are generally accepted, whereas conditions resulting from management [of a forest] receive increased scrutiny.”
This “increased scrutiny,” as the PGC’s Game Bird Section Supervisor observed, inevitably leads to “our forests … getting older and that’s a negative for grouse” (and a whole laundry list of other species as well). It’s like Robert Schwarzwalder, former Lincoln Fellow with the Claremont Institute, correctly warned, forest management should not be about “pseudo-sanctification and the consequent non-use of resources.” We cannot,” he warned, “look at forest land as a sanctified entity to which man is a hostile intruder. This is a brand of pantheistic religion, not a philosophy of conservation.”
As the Pennsylvania Game Commission has predicted, the grouse population this year seems to be “average to slightly above average” where “good habitat exists.” And perhaps this old grouse hunter is more fortunate than some of the other 100,000 people who comb the hills to find this elusive bird; he knows where some of that “good habitat” can still be found.
But that good habitat is growing scarcer every year as the forests of Pennsylvania mature. And given the new type of “ecosystem managers” that have taken control of our public lands agencies (the PGC and the DCNR), that situation isn’t likely to change.
A bird in hand really is worth two in the bush. Here’s hoping there’s always enough bush left for the other two birds to survive.