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In Response: Clearcutting may be why grouse, other wildlife are struggling

Some see our forests as places that rejuvenate the soul. Others see our forests for the pulpwood cords they can produce. We are blessed with wonderful forests, and there is a place for both interests.

A commentary I wrote and that was published in the News Tribune in December (Hunter's View: "Blame modern timber harvesting for erasing wildlife habitat," Dec. 2) questioned the reasons for struggling grouse and deer populations in the George Washington State Forest in northeastern Itasca County: What is the relationship between the loss of diverse habitat, the monoculture of aspen left in the wake of large pulpwood logging operations, and wildlife populations?

There were critical responses to my commentary, particularly because I didn't use solid data to prove my observations. But even accurate data may not give readers a clear understanding or tell the whole story. That is because data can be used selectively.

One response was from Wayne Brandt, executive vice president for Minnesota Forest Industries and for the Minnesota Timber Producers Association, both based in Duluth. Published Dec. 9, his commentary was headlined, "Thank modern timber harvesting for creating wildlife habitat." The other was from Steve Kariainen, the Great Lakes regional director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities (healthyforests.org). His commentary was published Dec. 13 under the headline, "Forest management a continual process of harvest, renewal."

Brandt argued that clearcutting our forests provides wonderful habitat. Using deer-harvest data from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, he concluded that logging enhances food resources for wildlife, resulting in deer numbers being up 41 percent since 2014. While that may be accurate, what might not have been understood was that DNR statistics show deer harvests down 32 percent since 2003.

Brandt's additional point that deer die in winter for lack of food only proved what I had written. Why is the deer harvest down 32 percent since 2003 if clearcutting forests provides so much food?

Kariainen suggested that logging where I hunt has made hunting more difficult. That was spot on. After each successive clearcut, I and other hunters have noticed wildlife decrease. Timber sales target the best woodlots that provide the highest yields. The destruction of prime habitat, where wildlife thrives, forces wildlife into marginal habitat, where survival is a struggle. The deer population where I hunt is being so depleted by wolves that I don't believe it can much longer support our local pack. Hunters know what I'm talking about. They don't need data to tell them the effects they can observe.

Both commentaries seemed to try to connect my premise to everything from tree diameters and forest age to landscape complexities. I stated that large clearcutting operations destroy habitat. That's evident. And the resulting regrowth is largely a monoculture of young aspen. A bulletin by the National Council for Air and Stream Control, written by the University of Minnesota Department of Forest Resources, states that the results of clearcutting are the regeneration of 20,000 to 30,000 aspen stems per acre. That's a monoculture. Even a forestry novice can see and understand this obvious result.

Karianen said I suggested widespread changes to species composition and forest age, and he had data to back the claim. What readers didn't learn was that the Forestry Inventory Analysis Unit of the U.S. Forest Service determined that more of the available remaining aspen will be found in stands that average less in volume than past harvests — and that total Forestry Inventory Analysis aspen volume has gone down due to significant harvesting and management. The determination clearly indicates a change in composition and age of state lands. And to what end?

Grouse numbers are down. Deer numbers are struggling. There is absolutely no proof that habitat created in the wake of clearcutting is more beneficial to grouse and deer than the prime habitat lost. To argue otherwise is to deny the DNR's last 14 years of deer-harvest records.

As much as timber-industry advocates might want you to believe that clearcutting our forests creates wonderful habitat, it in fact may be the very reason for struggling populations.

Mike Ribich of Grand Rapids has been a grouse hunter for 55 years.

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