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OUTDOORS: Reversal of fortunes

When Dave Lambeth made the rounds west of Grand Forks as part of the Grand Cities Bird Club's annual Christmas bird count, he was struck by the number of sharp-tailed grouse he saw within the 15-mile count circle.

Sharptail, prairie chicken

When Dave Lambeth made the rounds west of Grand Forks as part of the Grand Cities Bird Club's annual Christmas bird count, he was struck by the number of sharp-tailed grouse he saw within the 15-mile count circle.

A longtime birding enthusiast, Lambeth said this year's count tallied a whopping 196 sharptails.

By comparison, he said, the count produced only 14 prairie chickens.

"I had a big area out in the country, and I took a scope and scanned through every harvested sunflower and corn field," Lambeth said. "If there was any doubt whether I was looking at a prairie chicken or sharptail from a long ways away, I assumed they were sharptails."

Most likely, they were.

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Lambeth's observations are significant because they say a lot about what's happening with the two prairie grouse species in Grand Forks County, according to experts who study the birds.

"The prairie chickens have been declining in numbers, and the sharptails have increased," said John Toepfer, Plover, Wis., research director for The Society of Tympanuchus Cupido (the scientific name for prairie chicken), who has been studying prairie grouse since 1967. "Sharptails are more aggressive. They dominate prairie chickens."

According to Toepfer, the lack of sharptails on the landscape was a big reason why partners, including the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the prairie chicken society and the Grand Forks County Wildlife Federation, teamed up on a project to reintroduce prairie chickens to Grand Forks County in the early 1990s.

Using birds from Minnesota, South Dakota and Nebraska, project organizers from 1993 to 1998 released 375 prairie chickens on the Ed Bry and Prairie Chicken wildlife management areas west of Manvel, N.D.

Before the reintroduction, the only prairie chickens remaining in North Dakota were in the Sheyenne National Grasslands in the southeastern part of the state.

Early success

The prairie chickens responded well, and by 2000, the population in Grand Forks County had risen to 500 birds -- based on a survey of males on their breeding grounds -- making it the largest in the state. In 2004, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department offered the state's first prairie chicken season since 1945.

Despite that success, prairie chicken numbers have been sliding in recent years, while sharptail numbers are rising. That's not unusual with isolated populations such as those in Grand Forks County, said Toepfer, who surveys the birds each spring for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

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"Sharptails tend to take over, and that's been documented in Michigan," he said. "Most of the wildlife refuges in North Dakota historically had prairie chickens on them many years ago."

A look at the numbers shows the extent of the trend. In the past six years, the number of prairie chicken cocks in the Grand Forks study area has fallen steadily, from 330 in 2004 to 113 in the spring of 2009.

Sharptails, by comparison, have risen from 237 in 2004 to a high of 309 in 2008 and 299 last year.

"The scary part is when we started this, we did a pre-survey before we transplanted prairie chickens and basically, there were like 14 or 17 cock sharptails" in the Grand Forks study area, Toepfer said. "Over the years, the sharptails picked up dramatically and increased."

Hybrid concerns

Lambeth, the Grand Forks birder, wonders if sharptails are breeding with prairie chickens, creating a hybrid that could further reduce the chicken population and weaken its genetics. That can happen, Toepfer said, and there was speculation interbreeding caused prairie chickens to disappear from Grand Forks County in the 1970s. But there's been no significant evidence of that occurring, either in Grand Forks County or the Sheyenne grasslands, he said.

"We've seen very few hybrids in the census up there," Toepfer said. "Basically, I think it's been less than 5 percent over the years, which is not a big number.

"These isolated populations can become inbred and that may become a problem. At this point in time, I don't believe that."

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Toepfer said sharptail numbers also are increasing in the Sheyenne grasslands. When he was working there in 1983, Sheyenne had less than 100 sharptail cocks, Toepfer said, compared with 600 to 700 today.

As in Grand Forks, prairie chicken numbers in the Sheyenne grasslands have declined.

Targeting sharptails

In an effort to mitigate the trend, the Game and Fish Department in 2005 began allowing hunters who draw lottery tags for prairie chickens to shoot 12 sharptails in either the Grand Forks or Sheyenne hunting blocks until they've taken their quota of three chickens.

Before 2005, hunters with prairie chicken permits could shoot only two prairie grouse, whether chickens or sharptails.

Game and Fish offers 50 prairie chicken tags in each block, but both areas remain closed to sharptail hunting by other hunters. According to Stan Kohn, upland game management supervisor for the Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, sharptails and prairie chickens are too similar in appearance to risk opening the areas to all hunters.

"We'd like to see that sharptail harvest continue to increase in those areas," Kohn said. "Sometime, we'd like to take a look at other alternatives, but right now, we're hesitant to make any changes."

Kohn said wet springs in 2008 and 2009 hampered production for prairie chickens, which seem to do best in drier springs when they can nest in the lower areas of wet meadows. The chickens in wet years are forced to nest on higher ground, where production doesn't seem to be as high, he said.

Prairie chickens also have trouble reaching grains and other foods during winters with heavy snow. That was a problem last winter, and this year is offering more of the same.

"Lower nest success, which produces fewer young for the population, is what seems to be keeping the population of chickens down in both areas," Kohn said. "But there is no doubt that this hasn't affected sharptail production and they are on the increase."

Reversing the trend

As a researcher of prairie grouse, Toepfer said he doesn't know what can be done to reverse the trend of more sharptails and fewer prairie chickens -- short of adding significant areas of the grassland habitat chickens favor. And that's a scarce commodity.

No doubt, Toepfer said, history is not on the side of the prairie chicken, but the fate of the species in Grand Forks County remains to be seen.

"My personal opinion is everywhere you have a sharptail dancing ground, if there weren't sharptails, you'd have a (prairie chicken) booming ground," Toepfer said of the Grand Forks study area. "It's not good or bad, it's just what's happening, and from my perspective, we need to document it, watch it, learn it.

"I'm a researcher -- I'll wait and see," Toepfer said. "I'm guessing that this population is going to hang on for a significant period of time."

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: HUNTING
Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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