MASON COVE, Va. (WFXR) — Virginia has a rich tradition of gamebird hunting, but now one of those species of gamebirds is in danger of disappearing from the commonwealth. Ruffed grouse numbers are on the decline.

“We’ve really been talking about grouse declines for the better part of 50 to 60 years,” said Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) Upland Gamebird Biologist Michael Dye. “So, as we came out of that industrial forest logging period, there were a lot of grouse at that time period, and as more and more land was conserved and became forest land, those trees became a little older, we started to see that gradual decline.”

This has become a story of unintended consequences. As conservation efforts shifted to maintaining old-growth forest, new-growth forest declined.

As it turns out, ruffed grouse need both, and in ample supply. They need old-growth forest for nesting, and new-growth forest for brooding.

“We have a lot of yellow poplar trees here, there are a few scattered hemlocks in here, there’s a lot of blackberry,” said Dye as he gestured to an area of new-growth in Roanoke County. “So there’s a lot of forage for them, a lot of food for insects through the summer months; so, those young grouse can have a lot of forage and extra protein through those insects.”

In addition to forage, new-growth forest also provides plenty of cover so young grouse have a place to hide from predators.

“Those chicks can’t move very far,” Dye said. “they are tiny, just a few ounces each, and if they’re moving through heavy leaf litter, heavy vegetation, it’s very difficult for them to move and they’re very easy to pick off.

What is the solution?

Dye says it comes down to an almost surgical approach to forestry management. But, the clock is ticking, and Dye thinks the window of opportunity is just a decade or two to save ruffed grouse in Virginia.

“Small cuts, coming in and managing the forest, providing a little more forage,” Dye said. “If we can do a lot more habitat work, and really get things progressing in a positive direction, I think they have a pretty good chance.”