ELKINS — West Virginia’s new small-game biologist believes the key to better grouse hunting can be summed up in one word:
“There are a several factors that cause ebbs and flows in the grouse population,” said Linda Ordiway. “Habitat, West Nile virus, wildfires, wet springs and icy winter conditions. Of those, the only one we can control is habitat.”
Grouse are creatures of the forest, but they thrive best in a specific type of forest — one in which trees are starting to grow back after large trees have been cut. “Early successional habitat,” biologists call it, and 40 years ago West Virginia had plenty of it, and plenty of grouse, too.
That isn’t the case nowadays. Mature forests cover nearly 80 percent of the state. As the forests have grown up, grouse numbers have spiraled down.
Ordiway has seen some of that decline take place. For nine years, the Pennsylvania native worked as a regional biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of grouse and woodcock.
Her work covered eight states, including West Virginia.
“In those years, I believe I built up a pretty good relationship with a lot of the grouse hunters in the state,” she said.
“Now, as we build our grouse habitat program, I have those folks I can go to, and they know they can come to me. I’m not just some stranger coming from Pennsylvania.”
Division of Natural Resources officials hired Ordiway to try to reverse the long-term decline in the state’s grouse population. Her official title is “resident small-game biologist,” which includes squirrels, rabbits and snowshoe hares. The primary focus of her job, however, will be to improve habitat for grouse and quail.
Ordiway believes her background, which includes education and experience in both biology and forestry, give her insight into proper habitat creation.
She grew up in Bradford, Pennsylvania, in the Allegheny National Forest. She got her undergraduate degree in biology at Lock Haven University and a master’s degree in biology at Marshall University.
Later, while working at the Forestry Sciences Lab in the Allegheny, Ordiway had an epiphany.
“I was talking with Jim Redding, a forester there,” she said.
“He told me, ‘You tell me what kind of habitat you want, and I can write a prescription to get you there.’ It was a pivotal moment for me. I realized that foresters talk a different language than wildlife biologists.”
That realization spurred Ordiway to go back to school — this time to Syracuse University’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry — to obtain a Ph.D. in silviculture, a word that derives from the Latin words “silvi” (woods) and “cultura” (growing).
Grouse hunters have long argued that the state’s grouse habitat would be better if loggers were cutting more trees. Ordiway believes that’s only part of the equation.
“Clearcutting is not the only way, and may not be the best way, to create the type of structure that grouse need,” she said. “It’s not so much the age of a [timber] stand as it is the structure of a stand. The structure needs to be diverse enough to provide good habitat.”
To illustrate, she offered an example.
“Let’s say you end up with a clearing that’s covered in fern leading straight up to a stand of 80-foot trees,” she said. “A grouse living in that area is eating the equivalent of fast food.
“Now let’s say you can produce a stand with some mature beech trees, maybe some residual hawthorn from some old farm that’s grown up, some black cherry and a nice ground cover with dewberry and a few other species. A grouse in that area would be eating prime rib.”
Her goal is to work with landowners and foresters to create timber stands that contain a diversity of food sources.
“Quality of food has a lot to do with the quality of grouse habitat,” she said. “We want to provide quality of habitat, not necessarily quantity.”
To get to that point, she said, trees will need to be cut — but cut in specific ways that create a diverse habitat.
“There’s a stigma that comes with the word ‘logging,’” she added. “What we want to do is not logging. It’s silviculture. It’s a science. It employs extracting wood from the forest, but doing it in a way that controls the growth, composition and overall quality of the forest as it grows back.”
Possibilities, Ordiway believes, don’t just exist in large forest tracts.
“We also need to think about how we manage road openings, edges of food plots and electric rights-of-way,” she said. “You can create a lot of linear structure for grouse while managing to avoid ‘the wall of tall.’”
Ordiway realizes public opposition might arise for a DNR program that encourages timber-cutting.
“It’s an emotional issue,” she said. “On the other hand, deciding not to do timber management is making a conscious decision against certain species of wildlife.
“But why is it important for someone to have [mature forests], when [having them] means I can’t have the opportunity to show my granddaughter a grouse or a chestnut-sided warbler? Why should their wishes outrank mine?”
Ordiway said that insofar as grouse are concerned, the only thing DNR officials can control “is to create the best habitat we can for these birds, in the right areas, at the right time and in the right amount.
“There isn’t a right and wrong. There’s better and not-as-good. We’re working to make things better.”