Threatened and Endangered Species - Status Reports
Date Published: December 2017
Number of Pages: 24
Author(s): Derek W. Stinson
The Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus columbianus), the rarest of six extant subspecies of Sharp-tailed Grouse, was 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 in the Columbia Basin to cropland. The statewide population continued to decline through the 20th century, and the species was listed as a state threatened species by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission in 1998.
Habitat quantity, quality, and fragmentation limit the populations. Good Sharp-tailed Grouse nesting habitat contains a mix of perennial bunchgrasses, forbs, and a few shrubs, and critical winter habitats are riparian areas with deciduous trees and shrubs that provide cover, berries, seeds, buds, and catkins. Historically, the highest densities of Sharp-tailed Grouse were in mesic grassland and steppe types where annual precipitation averaged at least 11 inches annually. Most of these areas are now in cropland or orchards, and many areas that were not converted to cropland have shallow soils or steep slopes, factors that negatively affect productivity for Sharp-tailed Grouse.
Sharp-tailed Grouse persist in eight scattered populations in Lincoln, Douglas, and Okanogan counties, and the Colville Indian Reservation. Declines of some remnant populations have continued due to degradation of habitat, isolation, and possibly declining genetic health. At least one local population (Horse Springs Coulee) has gone extinct since 2000. The statewide population estimate increased partly in response to translocations and habitat restoration from 665 in 2004 to 894 in 2015, but after the 2015 fires, dropped to 608 in 2017. The recent fires, which affected >700,000 ac of historical sharp-tailed grouse habitat, may have improved habitat condition in the longer term, but the immediate effect was negative, and some riparian cover will likely need to be replanted.
WDFW lands help support several of the remnant populations, but these lands alone are too small to support viable populations; suitable conditions of surrounding lands is essential for recovery. The remaining populations in Washington are small, relatively isolated from one another, and are not likely to 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 at least one subpopulation, but additional areas need to be identified for future reintroductions and prioritized to help focus habitat restoration efforts. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) provides a financial incentive for private landowners to establish and maintain perennial vegetation. State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE), an initiative under the CRP program with stricter planting requirements, may boost grouse populations; >70,000 ac have been enrolled since 2010 for Greater Sagegrouse and Sharp-tailed Grouse habitat in Douglas County. Land enrolled in SAFE are written up as 10 or 15 year contracts, however, CRP enrollment is voluntary, and re-enrollment is affected by commodity prices. Perhaps as a result of recent fires, and a hard winter in 2016/17, we have not yet seen a clear boost to numbers in Douglas County.
The recovery plan (Stinson and Schroeder 2012) stipulates that the species will be considered for uplisting to endangered status if the population drops below 450 birds. However, all of the local populations have dropped below 200, and the leks in the Tunk, Siwash, and Greenaway areas are all precariously low. If the recent decline continues, the listing status may need to be revisited before the next scheduled status review in ~2021. For now, to be consistent with the recovery plan, it is recommended that the Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse remain listed as threatened in Washington.
Stinson, D. W. 2017. Periodic Status Review for the Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse in Washington. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia, Washington. 17+ iii pp.
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