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Wolf honors PGC group for grouse work

HARRISBURG — Work by the Pennsylvania Game Commission to give the state bird, the ruffed grouse, a better chance to recover from dramatic population declines caused by West Nile virus is being recognized by Gov. Tom Wolf.

Earlier this week, Wolf presented a team of eight Game Commission employees with Governor’s Awards for Excellence.

Biologists Lisa Williams, Clayton Lutz and Timothy Hoppe; Geospatial Specialists Robert Blystone and Jeremy Diehl; Geospatial Analyst Daniel Jones; Wildlife Habitat Management Program Chief Scott Bearer and Forest Program Manager David Gustafson will receive awards.

The awards recognize commonwealth employees for exemplary job performance or service that reflects initiative, leadership, innovation and increased efficiency. The Game Commission team is among 49 state employees from nine agencies to be honored at Wednesday’s virtual awards presentation.

The Game Commission team collaborated on the Grouse Priority Area Siting Tool, which combines cutting-edge GIS analysis with the Game Commission’s wildlife research and habitat-management information to identify areas where grouse populations are likely to recover best. Such knowledge is crucial in deciding where work for grouse should be focused. While grouse will benefit from projects to improve grouse habitat, if West Nile virus risk to grouse remains high in that area, a project’s benefit to grouse will be limited by disease. By considering all available data, G-PAST – which can be used by public and private landowners alike – can select the areas where habitat projects for grouse are likely to do the most good.

“It’s not enough to simply create grouse habitat,” said Williams, who identified West Nile’s role in Pennsylvania’s grouse-population collapse. “For the best success, habitat must be created in areas buffered from disease-carrying mosquitoes and close to existing grouse populations so birds can quickly colonize new sites.

“G-PAST helps the Game Commission and its conservation partners to work smarter, not just harder, for grouse,” Williams said.

Kenneth Duren, who heads up the Game Commission’s Game Birds Section, nominated the G-PAST team for the award, saying the tool has potential to become a game-changer in grouse restoration. He noted that multiple other states already have begun replicating the team’s work so they can similarly help grouse.

“By combining their varied expertise and working together with a shared purpose, the G-PAST team accomplished much more than could have resulted from any individual effort,” Duren said. “It goes to show that great ideas and strategies only become great solutions if people believe in and implement them.”

Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans said the G-PAST team’s work, and its recognition by Gov. Wolf, is something for which the entire agency can be proud. And the tool’s potential to help grouse, which in 2018 experienced record-low populations, are something for which hunters, conservationists and others concerned for the future of Pennsylvania’s state bird should be excited.

“Day in and day out, the Game Commission’s employees put their hearts and souls into their work, and they do so not because they seek recognition, but because they care deeply about Pennsylvania’s wildlife and habitats, now and in the future,” Burhans said.

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