THE HUNT IS IN THE HABITAT

Words & Photography by NANCY ANISFIELD

Trying to keep up with my hunting partner Patti Carter, I realised her customary dozen long strides in front of me had diminished and I was closing in if that’s what you could call shoving and smashing my way through nearly impenetrable cedars and hemlock. Gnarly was on point. Rather than immediately going for a shot at the bird, Patti tucked her gun under her elbow and pulled out her camera. We both grinned at the sight of Merrymeeting’s Wicked Gnarly, a bright ticked, brawny German shorthaired pointer, frozen with her muzzle canted slightly to the right, eyes riveted on a tangled blowdown. The ruffed grouse within no doubt was praying the twisted branches and dried brown leaves kept it camouflaged. 

 

Camera shoved back into her pocket, Patti took two steps forward, and the bird jettisoned skyward. Swinging right to left, Patti hit the grouse on the second shot, releasing Gnarly for the retrieve a moment later. Returning with the beautiful grey-phase male partridge, Gnarly’s eyes danced proudly. Then we whooped and danced a bit ourselves. Ruffed grouse hunting in northern New England is far from easy, and any bird successfully bagged is reason to celebrate.

 

Named for Gnarly Head wine with the Carter’s kennel name Merrymeeting and Maine’s favourite adjective, ‘wicked’, added, ‘Gnarly’ also serves as an apt description for the dense industrial forest and thick alder patches typical in this grouse and woodcock hunting region. Throughout, where healthy forest management practices flourish so do these terrific game birds – great to hunt, great to eat. 

“A lot of times when you walk into a cover you can feel that there is going to be a bird there,” Patti says. “Like that grouse cover, some woodcock covers have the feel – they have the wet, the soil, the regenerating woodland brush. You can be hunting and step from one area of a cover to the next, and right away you just know the birds will be there. From experience, all your senses say the place has what the birds need.”

 

Patti Carter is a German shorthair breeder, excellent bird dog trainer, president of the Yankee Chapter of the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association, an accomplished artist specialising in hunting dog portraits, and a passionate hunter. Primarily a Maine grouse and woodcock hunter, each year Patti also hunts sharp-tails and ducks in Saskatchewan, quail in the Southeast, and pheasants in the Midwest. She is a dedicated supporter of the Ruffed Grouse Society (RGS) and Pheasants Forever / Quail Forever (PF/QF).  Patti ‘gets it’ in terms of understanding the critical importance of conservation for the future of hunting and how hunters are the ones who drive these organisations. 

 

“I’m a member of Pheasants Forever and RGS because of hunting and habitat – you can’t have one without the other. The habitat is going away, and when it does, it’s forever. These conservation organisations have our values. They are ‘the someone’ there to protect the habitat, forever,” Patti explains while we talked with some folks about bird population declines such as the 82 per cent drop in Northern bobwhite quail populations since the 1960s, and the 27 per cent drop in America’s pheasant population over that same period.

Whereas Patti is a relatively new member of PF and says she’s still learning about the issues around pheasant and quail habitat conservation, she knows RGS well and has been a member for many years. Patti and her husband Blaine have 750 acres of grouse and woodcock habitat in Central Maine. She says RGS was key to the successful management of that property. “We went to RGS 25 years ago when we needed to have our land cut. The RGS biologist worked with the forester who worked with the logging company. They put together a habitat plan for the woodlands, wetlands, and cedar bogs. Some of the best bird cover now is the young poplar whips with leaves the size of baby elephant ears – we called them ‘titty highs’ for obvious reasons. But now they have become ‘head highs,’ perfect habitat for deer, woodcock and grouse.”

RGS and the American Woodcock Society (AWS)  have been involved in the restoration and improvement of close to 650,000 acres of land on federal, state and county lands over the past fifty years through research, education, and active participation in habitat projects. It is the only national organisation dedicated to the early successional forests – habitat critical for ruffed grouse, woodcock, and songbirds.

 

Unfortunately, cutting trees has a bad reputation. A pervasive sense that stately ‘old growth’ forests should be protected is damaging to the multitude of furred and feathered wildlife that depend on young forest habitat for food, nesting, and protection from predators. Using scientific management practices, RGS and AWS work with landowners and government agencies to develop healthy forest habitat. Concurrently, RGS and AWS support the sporting tradition, most particularly hunting, with the understanding that a strong hunting community is the best resource for the dollars and dedication needed to protect habitat. 

 

Similarly, PF/QF encompasses youth hunting programs, shooting teams and instruction, and conservation education as a parallel to their boots-on-the-ground habitat management projects and programs. While the lack of cutting harms grouse habitat, overzealous farming practices and policies have impacted pheasant habitat – the quality grasslands and small shrub cover needed for feeding, nesting, brood-rearing, protection, and travel. 

 

Founded in 1982, Pheasants Forever initially focused their restoration and protection programs on Midwest pheasant habitat. The impact of PF’s pheasant habitat work proved to be beneficial to many other gamebird and wildlife species, so in response to the particularly dramatic decline in quail populations and quail habitat, PF established its quail division, Quail Forever, in 2005.   PF/QF has restored over 17 million acres of critical wildlife habitat across America and now encompasses a variety of public and private sector partnerships across 45 states plus parts of Canada.

Variables beyond our control such as weather, disease, and predators take their toll on bird populations. Conservation, however, is where we can make an enormous impact. In addition to habitat restoration and protection, both RGS/AWS and PF/QF have teams in Washington, D.C., consulting on federal farming, forestry, and conservation policies and legislation.

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The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is unlike any other in the world. Over a century ago, hunters recognised the need to protect the resources they depended on and stop the declines caused by unregulated market hunting and fishing. Two fundamental principles were established: that our fish and wildlife belong to all Americans and that they need to be managed in a way – based on sound scientific practices – that their populations will be sustained forever. With five other principles articulated in the model, not only an awareness of the critical importance of conservation was recognised but a set of parameters by which conservation organisations could define their mission and legislation could set the law to protect fish and wildlife.

 

The successful vision of this model can be seen in moments and places. As an example of what the right cover can do to attract and support birds, Patti recalled a particular South Dakota hunt last year. With our husbands and two friends, we had chased pheasants in a ranch’s milo strips and shelterbelts beside an abandoned farmstead. The dogs worked well and held solid points, but many birds flushed beyond gun range. Eventually, all six of us had our limits. The guys headed towards the trucks, but Patti and I – and our dogs – weren’t ready to leave. We turned toward the farmstead, contemplating the nasty looking broken tree limbs poking out of thick woven grass. Rusted farm equipment and dense Russian olive shrubs dotted the patch.

 

“First we had to get over an old barbed wire fence which worried me for the dogs,” Patti reminds me. “It was half buried in the grass that had grown over it, twisted and broken. We inched our way across. The dogs followed us. No sooner than we just got over it and Scratch went on point. Tiza backed. A big rooster flew out. We pointed our fingers and said, ‘Bang!’”

 

Fifteen minutes later, point after point, we stumbled out of the patch with a count of 11 roosters ‘finger shot’ and another half dozen hens routed from their safe zone.

 

“I knew the birds we pushed out of the milo would be there,” Patti explains. “It was perfect protection cover, nearly impenetrable brush with escape by air the only quick way out. It was rough for us going through it, not a place we’d choose to hunt. But the birds were there. They are smarter than us. We had to play their game...to hunt, we have to hunt in their territory.”

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