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Outdoors

Outdoors notebook: Role of mosquitoes in grouse decline probed

Bob Frye
| Tuesday, May 5, 2015, 5:51 p.m.

Are you a believer that all things in nature are connected?

If so, ruffed grouse may be in line for trouble.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission is exploring what role West Nile virus might be having in depressing ruffed grouse populations.

No one believes the mosquito-borne illness is the primary cause behind a decline in grouse, commission wildlife veterinarian Justin Brown said. Loss of habitat is clearly No. 1, he said.

But, Brown added, grouse may be more susceptible to the disease than other species. That may explain why some hunters have noted grouse numbers being down even in areas with good habitat, he said.

The commission will try to collect eggs from wild Pennsylvania grouse, then raise them in a mosquito-proof environment to see how they fare.

“We're very interested in the result of this study,” Brown said. “We think it has great value.”

Meanwhile, to the detriment of grouse, mosquito populations could conceivably increase in the future, as one of their chief predators is in trouble.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will list the northern long-eared bat as an endangered species as of May 30.

Populations of the mosquito-eating bat have declined by up to 99 percent because of an infection known as white-nose syndrome. The listing is meant to offer them some protection, primarily during the summer “pup-rearing” season, the service said.

But the listing comes with some caveats.

Greg Turner, bat biologist for the commission, said that under what's known as the federal “4(d)” rule, there will be some exceptions not typically allowed. Timbering operations will be allowed to continue, bats can be removed from homes in nuisance situations, and those with permits can continue to capture and handle bats, for instance, he added.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the exceptions ensure landowners are not “unduly burdened” by regulations that do nothing to further protect the bats.

But at least one organization, the Center for Biological Diversity, has filed lawsuits suggesting the protections don't go far enough, Turner said.

Grants awarded

The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and the Dominion Foundation recently awarded $30,000 to watershed groups in 15 counties via their watershed minigrant program.

The Westmoreland County-based Tubmill Trout Club got the largest grant, worth $5,000, for this year's showcase project. The club will do stream bank stabilization and habitat enhancement work along Hendricks Run. The money will pay for rock, logs, rebar, grass seed, mulch and contractor fees.

Other groups getting money include Crooked Creek Watershed Association in Armstrong County; Paddle Without Pollution and Turtle Creek and Little Sewickley Creek watershed associations in Allegheny; Jacobs Creek Watershed Association, Westmoreland Cleanways and the Monastery Run Improvement Project in Westmoreland; Blacklick Creek Watershed Association and Evergreen Conservancy in Indiana; Buffalo Creek Watershed Association in Washington; Paint Creek Regional Watershed Association in Somerset; Connoquenessing Watershed Alliance in Butler; and Chest Creek and Clearfield Creek watershed associations and Conemaugh Valley Conservancy in Cambria.

Dead elk

Talk about odd.

In Jackson Hole, Wyo., recently, a herd of 31 elk were found floating in Palisades Reservoir, all dead. The cause?

They fell through the ice and drowned. As many as 20 more may have also died but drifted away before discovery, wildlife officials said.

Such cases aren't totally unheard of. A herd of 20 elk died that way in Colorado in December.

But Wyoming officials said this case was the largest in 15 or so years.

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bfrye@tribweb.com or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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