State looks to bolster spruce grouse population

The state Department of Environmental Conservation hopes to release spruce grouse this summer to help bolster the bird’s small local population.

Spruce grouse are listed as endangered in New York state and are only known to be living in three counties: St. Lawrence, Franklin and a small section of Essex. Currently there are only about 75 to 100 spruce grouse that live in 15 populations in the Adirondacks, said DEC biologist Angelena Ross, noting that the total population number was a rough estimate.

Ross, the DEC’s leading expert on spruce grouse, said the spruce grouse program could start as early as this summer, depending on whether she is able to obtain the proper permits for introducing the birds here.

The aim is to release nine females, their young, and three males on state land in Franklin County, she said.

“We’re choosing a state land section for this because it’s really good habitat,” Ross said. “There’s occasionally birds there, so they sometimes use it, and it’s off in the periphery, so we’ll just see how everything goes this year.”

The birds will have radio transmitters on them, so biologists can track them to see how long it takes for the birds to establish territories, among other things.

“Maybe they never will (establish territory) and if they don’t, maybe we rethink our methodology,” Ross said. “Maybe we need to house them at the site for a little while and do more of a soft release.”

If the release is successful, the DEC would look to release more birds in the future in a similar manner at another location, Ross said. The DEC’s spruce grouse recovery plan calls for establishing two new populations to add to the 15 that already exist.

The creation of new spruce grouse populations is part of the DEC’s spruce grouse recovery plan, which was recently made public on April 4.

Highlights of the plan include measures for managing habitat, reintroducing spruce grouse into selected sites and conducting research to determine the best source of birds for reintroduction into New York.

Adult spruce grouse are generally about 38 to 43 centimeters tall and weigh between 450 and 650 grams, according to the recovery plan. The bird has short, rounded wings and a tail containing more than 12 feathers. It has a bare red membrane over the eye that is more prominent in males.

The Adirondacks are at the southern range for these boreal birds that prefer coniferous forests in lowland areas.

“They really stay pretty tight in these lowland boreal areas: wetland with spruce and tamarack and fir,” Ross said.

The species doesn’t migrate and doesn’t move much. They act more like mammals in that they walk around and don’t fly much, Ross said.

Spruce grouse are considered common in Canada and have populations in all the northeastern states bordering Canada. The species was once more abundant in New York, with populations in at least six counties in the Adirondacks. However, the population started to decline in the late 1800s. Reasons for their population decline included the loss of habitat due to the logging of softwoods and an increase in hunting.

Spruce grouse were first listed as a threatened species in New York in 1983 and later moved to the endangered species list in 1999 as a result of continued declines in the population.

Of the 15 populations in the Adirondacks, 11 are known to be on private land and four are on state land.

Part of the spruce grouse recovery plan is to educate the public about the spruce grouse’s population, which the DEC will do through signage and other means.

“If we start to restore spruce grouse populations and they start to grow, they are going to be in different areas and we should just make people more aware that they could encounter them,” Ross said.