SPOKANE - When it comes to holiday gifts for Washington wildlife enthusiasts, 38 sharp-tailed grouse in birch trees are better than a partridge in a pear tree.
Thirty-eight sharp-tailed grouse the largest flock seen in 18 years in Washington – were spotted this week in birch trees on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) Scotch Creek Wildlife Area in Okanogan County.
The sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus) is listed as a state threatened species and is a federal species of concern. Only about 1,000 of these native prairie grouse are left in Washington. Much of the sagebrush-grassland habitat needed by the once-popular game birds has been altered over the past 100 years by agriculture and development. The Scotch Creek Wildlife Area, located about 10 miles northwest of Omak, was initially acquired by WDFW 10 years ago to protect and restore critical sharptail habitat, including a "lek" or grouse mating ground.
When area manager Jim Olson spotted the sharptails this week, he said he "nearly fell over." He counted a total of 38 in the birches just north of the area headquarters, "more sharptails than I have witnessed in the 10 years working here." After toiling so hard for so many years to make the area hospitable to the rare birds, Olson said "I couldn't help but spread this very exciting story."
Olson reported that the sharptails were using the plantings of water birch, aspen, and wild rose that WDFW crews planted along Scotch Creek's riparian area back in 1992.
Now at almost 16,000 acres, the Scotch Creek complex has been expanded in several units over time, using funds from the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) as part of the Northwest Power Act's directed mitigation for wildlife habitat losses from Grand Coulee Dam. About $400,000 has been spent annually in acquisition, operation and maintenance, and habitat enhancement. WDFW crews control noxious weeds and have planted native grasses, shrubs, and trees over the years to reverse the decline of the area's sharp-tailed grouse population. The area also supports mule and white-tailed deer, ruffed and blue grouse, pheasants, quail, chukar and Hungarian partridge, and many other wildlife species.
WDFW prairie grouse researcher Mike Schroeder of Bridgeport said it was 1983 when the last large group of sharptails -- a flock of 50 -- was spotted in northcentral Washington.
"This is good news," Schroeder said. "It's not like the species is recovered or anything of course, but it's a start. It's hard to say just why we're suddenly seeing them, although the heavy snow cover here is probably forcing them to flock together more and we've got more trees on the area now that they can use for winter feeding."
Schroeder said the long-term weed control, vegetation planting, and the transplant of about 50 sharptails over the past four years at Scotch Creek have all helped the species.
"These things take time," Schroeder said. "Lots of people have wondered why these birds didn't recover instantaneously when we first made these efforts. But a 40-year study of prairie grouse in Nebraska showed that it took more than 10 years before populations responded to habitat restoration."
Schroeder noted that the recent Christmas Bird Count in the Bridgeport area tallied 23 sharptails, 17 together in birch trees along West Foster Creek, a part of another WDFW Wildlife Area recently acquired with BPA funds.
"Trees are few and far between in this country," Schroeder said, "and with this kind of snow cover, the birds use whatever they can. I know of Seattle birdwatchers who make trips over here at this time of year just to try to spot a few sharptails in these trees."
Schroeder and other WDFW biologists have been closely monitoring many of the small, isolated populations of sharptails left in Douglas, Lincoln, and Okanogan counties for the past ten years. The strongest remaining sharptail populations in Washington are on the Colville Indian Reservation near Nespelem in the southeast corner of Okanogan County.