Category: Recovery Plans
Published: July 2012
Author(s): Derek W. Stinson and Michael A. Schroeder
The Columbian sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus columbianus) is the rarest of six described subspecies of sharp-tailed grouse, a close relative of prairie-chickens. The subspecies' historical range extended from southern British Columbia, south along the eastern slope of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges to northeastern California, and east to Colorado and Utah. Only small portions of this area still support populations. The sharp-tailed grouse was listed as a State Threatened species by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission in 1998. This plan updates information in the 1998 status report, identifies population recovery objectives, and outlines activities needed to recover a viable population of sharp-tailed grouse in Washington.
Columbian sharp-tailed grouse were the most abundant and important game bird in eastern Washington during the 1800's. However, numbers declined dramatically with the conversion of large areas of Palouse prairie, the Klickitat region, and arable shrub-steppe to cropland. By the 1920's, sharp-tailed grouse were extirpated from significant portions of their historical range in Washington. Their decline continued with the degradation of habitat that came with drying of moist meadows, the elimination of woody riparian vegetation, heavy livestock grazing of native bunchgrasses, and general agricultural intensification. Hunting seasons for sharp-tailed grouse were shortened and bag limits were steadily reduced beginning in 1897. The season was closed statewide from 1933-1953, but short seasons were opened from 1954-1987.
The loss of active leks (dancing grounds where males conduct courtship displays) over time is indicative of the trend in reduced population and range, and increased isolation of populations of Columbian sharp-tailed grouse in the state. Of the 136 leks documented between 1960 and 2011, 92 (68%) are currently vacant. Twenty-eight vacant leks are in portions of the historical range that are no longer occupied, whereas the remaining 64 vacant leks reflect declines in density within occupied portions of the historical range. The overall population declined almost continually from 1970 to 2001, with annual changes in attendance at leks suggesting a 74% decline during this period.
The current distribution of Columbian sharp-tailed grouse covers approximately 2,173 km2, only 2.8% of their historical range in Washington. Sharp-tailed grouse persist in seven scattered populations in Lincoln County, northern Douglas County, the Colville Indian Reservation, and valleys and foothills east and west of the Okanogan River in Okanogan County. Declines of some remnant populations have continued in recent years due to continued degradation of habitat, isolation, and possible declining genetic health. At least one subpopulation (in the Horse Springs Coulee area) appears to have gone extinct since 2000. The statewide population estimate dipped to a low of 472 in 2001. The estimate increased to 902 in 2011, probably in response to translocations and habitat restoration.
Shortages of nesting, brood rearing, and wintering habitats are important factors limiting population recovery. Good sharp-tailed grouse habitat contains a mix of perennial bunchgrasses, forbs, and a few shrubs, along with patches of key species of deciduous shrubs for wintering. Historically, the highest densities of sharp-tailed grouse were likely in mesic grassland and steppe types where annual precipitation averaged at least 11 inches. Much of the remaining steppe vegetation in Washington is in areas that were not converted to cropland due to shallow soils or steep slopes, factors that negatively affect productivity for sharp-tailed grouse.
Grassland cover types are preferred during spring and summer in Washington, with shrub, riparian, and bitterbrush habitats used primarily as escape cover. Leks are often on knolls or ridge tops with short vegetation and good visibility, and females generally select nest sites <3 km from the lek. The quality of nesting and brood-rearing habitat depends on height and density of vegetation. Residual native grasses and forbs conceal the nest and provide shelter for the brood during spring and early summer. Optimal nesting habitat has residual vegetation averaging at least 25 cm in height. Females often raise broods within 1 km of their nests in habitat containing a diverse cover of shrubs, forbs, and bunchgrasses, where insects are abundant. In late summer and fall, broods often move to riparian areas offering green vegetation, berries, and shade.
Restored grassland for sharp-tailed grouse on the Chesaw Unit of the Scotch Creek Wildlife Area in Okanogan County.
In Washington, critical winter habitats are riparian areas with deciduous trees and shrubs that provide cover, berries, seeds, buds, and catkins when the ground is snow-covered. The most important trees and shrubs include water birch, serviceberry, chokecherry, rose, hawthorn, snowberry, cottonwood, and aspen. Some areas with suitable nesting and brood-rearing habitat may remain unused because the areas lack adequate winter habitat.
Declining quality of steppe habitats in eastern Washington is probably a significant factor in the decline of sharp-tailed grouse. In addition to the direct loss of Palouse prairie and steppe habitats by conversion to cropland, sharp-tailed grouse habitat has been lost and degraded through: 1) the destruction of deciduous riparian vegetation needed for winter food and cover; 2) overgrazing by cattle, sheep, and horses; 3) loss of riparian vegetation and seasonally wet meadows due to alteration of hydrology by agriculture; 4) invasion by exotic grasses, forbs, and conifers; 5) fragmentation of native habitat into small, isolated patches; 6) degradation of shrub-steppe habitat by wildfires in Wyoming big sage areas and removal of sagebrush; and 7) increased presence of fences, and powerlines. The most productive areas of steppe habitat for sharp-tailed grouse occurred on sites with deep soils and have been converted to agriculture. Although considerable steppe vegetation remains on shallow soils of the channeled scablands, these areas have generally been degraded by a long history of livestock grazing, and may not be as productive for grouse if they produce fewer forbs and insects than deeper soil areas.
Management for sharp-tailed grouse in Washington is difficult because much of the landscape, including lands between the existing populations, is privately owned cropland, orchards, or rangeland. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is currently the main financial incentive for private landowners to provide sharp-tailed grouse habitat in Washington and in other states. However, many CRP fields enrolled in the 1980s-90s were seeded to crested wheatgrass, smooth brome, or other exotic grasses, and provide little habitat value to sharp-tailed grouse compared to native grassland or more diverse CRP lands enrolled later. Older CRP fields need to be reseeded with native seed mixes whenever possible. State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE), a new initiative under the CRP program, may boost grouse populations; 63,000 ac were allocated in 2010 for sage-grouse and sharp-tailed grouse habitat in northern Douglas County. CRP enrollment is voluntary, re-enrollment is affected by commodity prices, and the program is dependent on re-authorization in the federal Farm Bill every five years. Current sharp-tailed grouse populations would be adversely affected if CRP lands supporting grouse were placed back into grain production.
CRP and restoration efforts on WDFW wildlife areas have shown that farmland can be restored to usable condition for sharp-tailed grouse, and strategically located cropland could be the focus of acquisition efforts. However, funding acquisition of cropland can be difficult because grant programs such as the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program give higher priority to funding proposals for areas with intact native vegetation.
A sharptail captured in Idaho, gets a band and radio before being released in Washington.
The goal of the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse recovery program is to restore and maintain healthy self-sustaining populations in a significant portion of the historical range in the state. The species will be considered for down-listing from State Threatened status to Sensitive status when Washington has at least one population averaging >2,000 birds for a 10-year period, and when the statewide population averages >3,200 birds for a 10-year period. Meeting recovery objectives will require improvements in habitat availability and quality, increases in population numbers and expansion of occupied areas. Reaching these recovery goals may require establishing a significant population in a portion of the historical range with deep soil and average annual precipitation exceeding 13 inches. Maintaining the genetic health of sharp-tailed grouse populations may require periodic translocations between populations if habitat connections cannot be re-established.
Restoring sufficient habitat is an important recovery need and will require a sustained effort involving many partners. Sharp-tailed grouse often move up to 20 km across multiple ownerships to meet their year-round habitat needs. Cooperation is needed among private landowners, public agencies, tribes, and non-governmental organizations to facilitate recovery.
Habitat enhancement in occupied areas and, where possible, re-establishment of habitat connections between occupied areas are essential for recovery. Prescribed burns may be useful for improving habitat in the more mesic steppe communities where conifers or other woody vegetation have invaded. Prescribed fire is not recommended in dry Wyoming big sagebrush shrub-steppe.
The remaining populations in Washington are small, isolated from one another, and will not persist unless they increase in size. Habitat restoration and enhancement and population augmentation using birds from other states are ongoing and have prevented extirpation of one subpopulation in Okanogan County. Areas with the greatest potential to support reintroduced sharp-tailed grouse populations need to be identified for reintroductions and prioritized based on environmental factors, existing land cover, and land ownership, to help focus habitat restoration efforts.
Draft documents are provided for informational purposes only. Drafts may contain factual inaccuracies and may not reflect current WDFW policy.