SAY what you want about the downward slide in ruffed grouse hunting compared to the glory years, Wisconsin’s North Woods still ranks among the top regions in the country for chasing this elusive game bird.

That thought came to mind the other day as I read about a proposal to list the ruffed grouse as an endangered species in Indiana, one of 18 states where populations have plummeted to the point of being endangered — the last-ditch effort to save a species on the road to extinction.

The number of grouse is less than one percent of the population from just 40 years ago. A bird that once inhabited all 92 counties now persists in only a few. They’ve been extirpated from at least 15 counties.

So why are populations plummeting?

Habitat. Ruffed grouse are the bellwether of forest health. Poor forest health has been documented in lockstep with ruffed grouse disappearance over several decades. 

In healthy forests, grouse and the forest wildlife community are resilient to many burdens. In unhealthy forests, they succumb to disease and predation.

Wisconsin doesn’t have the grouse it once did because in recent decades there has been less logging and less emphasis on short-lived trees species such as aspen.

But in the 18-county area that makes up what the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) calls the Northern Region, we still have enough healthy forests thanks to public land ownership, industrial forests and in general, the logging industry.

It is sustainable timber management that keeps our forests diverse, providing for varied habitats that include forests of all ages — and especially the young forest types preferred by ruffed grouse, American woodcock and many songbirds.

You don’t have to go very far south of Antigo to find unhealthy forests that stopped supporting ruffed grouse decades ago.

The demand for high-quality hardwoods and veneer products prompted most property owners to let their forests mature, and the resulting loss of aspen and other young tree species caused grouse numbers to plummet.

Many of the ridges I walked as a youngster, chasing grouse around prickly ash thickets, berry brush and young trees, have matured into mighty hardwoods that now support only deer and turkeys.

Even in the North Woods, we’ve lost tens of thousands of acres of aspen and other young forest to unwise management decisions — mostly on the national forest.

Quality grouse habitat on the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest just east of Eagle River, Phelps and Three Lakes is a pittance of what hunters found prior to the 1990s.

A national agenda that favored old-growth forest, wilderness, preservation and less clear-cutting of trees stopped responsible logging on hundreds of thousands of public forest acres.

Thankfully, forest diversity has been better on state and county forest lands, along with industrial forests that are open to public use. Local management decisions haven’t been so tough on clear-cutting, the only way that some tree species can regenerate.

Clear-cutting mimics the wildfires of centuries past, allowing sunshine to hit the roots and seeds left behind so that an entirely new forest can sprout almost immediately.

It’s been slow in coming, as you’d expect from a federal agency, but the Forest Service here is doing a great job of playing catch-up on timber sales that should have happened many years ago.

It was just announced that the Chequamegon-Nicolet sold 128.7 million board feet of timber in the fiscal year that ended in September, the highest level in more than 25 years. Part of that is due to a congressionally sanctioned partnership with the Wisconsin DNR that allows state staffers to help the feds in preparing timber sales.

For those who don’t know or remember, the problems started when it took eight years to rewrite the 15-year Forest Plan, from 1996 to 2004. As the planning stage lingered, less and less cutting was accomplished on the previous plan.

The new plan converted thousands of acres of young forest into new categories where logging, especially clear-cutting, would never be allowed again. There was an increase in old-growth forest and more emphasis put on longer-lived tree species such as maple. 

Many aspen stands were allowed to mature and fall over, naturally replaced by hardwoods when fires or clear-cutting isn’t available to promote regeneration.

Add to that almost a dozen lawsuits that were filed to challenge every timber sale between 2004 and 2009, over the paperwork trail on wildlife impacts, and you can see why the Forest Service got so far behind.

Eventually forest managers proved their case and won every one of those lawsuits, proving their documentation on wildlife impacts was accurate and in line with federal regulations.

According to the Ruffed Grouse Society, Wisconsin remains one of the most productive states in the nation for ruffed grouse production. The Great Lakes states, including Michigan and Minnesota, are the most popular destination for nonresident grouse addicts.

Our population cycle may be at a rather dismal low at the moment, but there are signs that indicate it will bounce back. Brood production was solid last spring so the numbers should be on the rise once again, headed toward a peak in the 10- to 12-year cycle.

Habitat is the key and aggressive logging is vital to young forest habitat, something states such as Indiana lost sight of in recent decades.

So let us learn from the mistakes of others and stay on track, lest our favorite upland bird succumbs to disease and predation.