Between 2001 and 2005, the ruffed grouse population suffered a 63 percent decline in Pennsylvania. No one was sure why but in 2015 through 2016, Game Commission biologist Lisa Williams and her team confirmed their suspicions about Pennsylvania’s state bird being affected by the West Nile Virus (WNV).
Grouse chicks were hatched from eggs gathered in the wild, and then inoculated with WNV. Within the first week 40 percent of the chicks died. After two weeks, an additional 40 percent of the chicks showed so much organ damage that they probably could not have survived in their natural environment.
After the challenge study was completed, the laboratory findings were then tested on wild grouse in Pennsylvania by looking for WNV-positive antibodies in harvested grouse. This testing is the first of its kind where lab results were then tested in wild populations.
Williams rallied hundreds of hunters across the state to send in blood samples when they harvested a grouse during the hunting season. Game Commission pathologist Justin Brown and their research partners at Colorado State University and the University of Guelph then did the careful lab work to assess WNV exposure in wild grouse. By incorporating these findings into habitat management planning, the Game Commission and partners hope to direct habitat management efforts to areas where grouse populations have the best chance of responding.
Williams’ research then caught the ear of one of the Game Commission staff filmmakers.
Game Commission filmmaker Tracy Graziano, armed with her Canon C500 and Final Cut X editing program, set out to tell Williams’ story that continues to unfold even today. Graziano completed the 9-minute documentary in late January 2017 after 18 months of shooting and countless hours in the field. She has been with the agency for eight years but has been creating science and wildlife documentaries since 1999.
“The most rewarding thing I can hope for in any of my film projects is to help influence change for the benefit of wildlife and conservation,” said Graziano.
“With more than 27,000 YouTube views to date, I believe the ‘Ruffed Grouse’ film was critically important in raising awareness among hunters about the risk of WNV to grouse and is one of the reasons other state wildlife agencies started looking into WNV as a contributing cause of decreasing grouse populations,” Lisa Williams said.
Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans concurs.
“Lisa Williams’ research into the ruffed grouse population decline in Pennsylvania is cutting-edge science-based wildlife management,” Burhans said. “Documenting these important findings by using the latest technology by skilled filmmaker Tracy Graziano so others can learn and benefit exemplifies why the Pennsylvania Game Commission is at the forefront in modern wildlife management.”
“Ruffed Grouse” won awards from the following:
- The University of Idaho Fish & Wildlife Film Festival 2017, Idaho, “Natural History Documentary-Short” category
- American Conservation Film Festival 2017, West Virginia, Official Selection “Conservation Film Short” category
- Wildlife Conservation Film Festival 2017, New York, Official Selection “Wildlife Conservation” category
- FIIN 2017, Portugal, Official Selection “Films of Nature” category
- NatureTrack Film Festival 2018, California, Official Selection “Conservation” category
- Outdoor Film Festival 2018, Utah, Official Selection “Categories by Species”
This past July, the “Ruffed Grouse” film was recognized with its most recent award at the Association for Conservation Information (ACI) conference in Springfield, Missouri. The film took third place in the 2018 “Video Long” category.
ACI is a professional organization that recognizes excellence in educational work completed by state and federal fish and wildlife agencies across North America.