Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologists plan to capture a dozen Columbian sharp-tailed grouse next week on the Colville Indian Reservation and relocate them to the Scotch Creek Wildlife Area in Okanogan County to help recover the state threatened species.
Only about 1,000 of these native prairie grouse are left in Washington. That's because much of the sagebrush-grassland habitat needed by these once popular game birds has been altered over the past 100 years by agriculture and development.
Recovery efforts have included protection and restoration of sagebrush-grassland habitats on both public and private lands in eastern Washington through acquisitions, leases, cooperative agreements and federally-funded agricultural set-aside programs. Native grasses and shrubs are being re-established on WDFW's 9,000-acre Scotch Creek Wildlife Area northwest of Omak, using funds from the Bonneville Power Administration as part of mitigation for wildlife habitat losses from Grand Coulee Dam. The habitat enhancement work is meant to reverse the decline of the area's sharp-tailed grouse population.
But more than habitat work may be needed, said WDFW prairie grouse researcher Mike Schroeder. Scotch Creek's remnant sharptail population may need a genetic boost.
Schroeder and other WDFW biologists have been monitoring closely many of the small, isolated populations of sharptails left in Douglas, Lincoln and Okanogan counties for the past seven years. The largest remaining sharptail populations in Washington are on the Colville Indian Reservation near Nespelem in the southeast corner of Okanogan County. Upon request, Schroeder explained, the Colville Confederated Tribes graciously agreed to provide birds for the transplant.
The capture work starts next week because the sharptails are nearing the peak of their breeding season when the birds gather on traditional sites or "leks." There the males compete for females in an age-old ritual of "dancing" and sounding off to each other.
With help from Colville Tribe wildlife biologist Maureen Murphy, Schroeder will place walk-in traps on the leks. Captured birds will receive radio telemetry "necklaces" before being caged and trucked about an hour-and-a-half away to the release site at Scotch Creek. Radio- marked birds will be monitored to evaluate their movement, survival, and productivity.
"This capture and transplant will help us determine if the statewide distribution of sharp- tailed grouse can be increased in this way," Schroeder said.
Murphy noted that the Colville Tribes are as interested in helping Washington recover the threatened sharptails as the department. "The sharptails on the reservation stand to gain in the long run if we can help restore healthy populations around us," she said.
PHOTO OPPORTUNITY: Current plans call for setting traps on leks in the Nespelem area (just north of Grand Coulee Dam) at about 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 30; traps will be checked and birds handled at about 4:30 a.m. on Wednesday, March 31, with release of the birds on Scotch Creek Wildlife Area later that morning. Media interested in photographing any of these operations should contact Madonna Luers, 509-456-4073, no later than 12-noon on Tuesday, March 30, for the latest plans and specific directions and maps to rendezvous locations.