West Virginia wildlife officials are putting out an all-points bulletin for grouse hunters.
They’re looking for hunters who are willing to document where they hunt, how long they hunt, and how many grouse they flush and kill. In short, they want data they can use to better manage the state’s troubled grouse population.
“We’re looking for data,” said Paul Johansen, wildlife chief for the state Division of Natural Resources. “Having a large number of cooperators will help us do a better job with grouse biology, grouse management and setting grouse-hunting regulations.”
Grouse populations, which had been in decline throughout the late 1980s through the early 2000s, took a nosedive after 2001 and have remained low ever since.
As grouse hunting declined, so did the number of people who shared their hunting experiences with DNR officials. Called “grouse cooperators,” those hunters, through their reports, gave agency biologists statewide insight into population trends and hunting-success rates.
With each passing year of population decline, the number of grouse cooperators declined, too. As recently as two years ago, only 16 remained active.
By contrast, the state’s annual surveys of bowhunters and spring gobbler hunters have hundreds of cooperators each year.
“With that many cooperators, you can get a really good data set,” said DNR game bird biologist Mike Peters.
Eager to expand his grouse database, Peters took action. Two years ago, he placed an appeal for more cooperators in the state’s hunting-regulations booklet. A few hunters signed on. In October, with the number of cooperators up to 34, Peters issued another appeal in a letter to grouse hunters:
“This is an annual survey conducted by the DNR which provides invaluable information when it comes to monitoring and managing our grouse populations,” he wrote. “You simply provide information, on preprinted forms, telling us about your days afield.”
In the letter, Peters also asked cooperating hunters to send in a few selected feathers from each grouse killed. Perhaps more important, he asked cooperators to collect blood samples from those birds.
Cooperators who agree to pull blood samples are given strips that soak up a few drops of blood. DNR officials send the samples to labs outside the state to be analyzed for evidence of West Nile Virus. Researchers in Pennsylvania have discovered a correlation between West Nile and grouse population declines. Johansen said West Virginia’s cooperators had already begun taking samples, but not enough to give biologists a clear picture of the disease’s prevalence.
“The West Nile Virus connection to grouse has really sparked hunters’ interest,” Peters said.
A couple of Ruffed Grouse Society chapters echoed the DNR’s appeal on their Facebook pages.
Johansen said those appeals boosted interest even further.
“Those [RGS] folks tend to be the really avid grouse hunters,” he continued. “They’re the ones who are out there the most and see the most.”
However, hunters need not be RGS members in order to participate. The only real requirement is a desire to help the DNR manage the grouse population.
People interested in becoming cooperators may do so by contacting Daniel Smith at the DNR’s Elkins Operations Center, 304-637-0245.