Grouse of the Shrub Steppe

May 31, 2016

The Greater sage-grouse and the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, Washington’s native prairie grouse species, are listed as threatened by the state. Once abundant throughout the sagebrush prairie landscape of eastern Washington, their populations have plummeted to about 1,000 birds each, in isolated pockets in Douglas, Yakima, and Lincoln Counties and Okanogan, Douglas, and Lincoln Counties, respectively.

Both the Greater sage-grouse and Columbian sharp-tailed grouse are shrub-steppe obligates. This means they require large expanses of shrub-steppe ecosystems that once dominated the Columbia Basin, Okanogan Highlands, and Palouse regions of eastern Washington. Their populations declined as the native prairies and shrub-steppes were converted to agriculture, transportation corridors, and urban centers. In Washington, their ranges overlap but sage-grouse predominate in areas of moderately dense sagebrush and native bunchgrasses with potholes and wet meadows for brood rearing. Columbian sharp-tailed grouse are found in grassy areas with healthy riparian habitats for winter forage and cover. The only chance for survival of both of these species in our state is conserving significant tracts of these landscapes.

Public lands in Lincoln County are essential to the recovery of sage-grouse and sharp-tailed grouse. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area and surrounding Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Telford, Twin Lakes, and Lakeview units support both species. Neighboring ranchers also participate in US Department of Agriculture programs to provide habitat. These efforts include restoring fields to native grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs and better managing cattle grazing.

The Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area was acquired by WDFW primarily for Columbian sharp-tailed grouse management. The geographically isolated population was declining. To increase genetic diversity and augment the population, translocating birds from British Columbia, Utah, and Idaho began in 2005. Trapping live birds for translocation is aided by the reproductive behavior. Male sharp-tailed grouse gather in traditional dancing grounds called leks where they sing, dance, and spar in a complicated display. The lek activity continues through two to three months each spring but female grouse tend to visit for breeding during a short period several weeks after the dancing commences.

To capture sharp-tailed grouse, special traps are placed on the leks when females are present. The traps are opened before dawn. Intent on the business at hand, the males often dance themselves or chase the females right into the traps. When the lek disperses sometime after sunrise, the captured birds are measured, banded, fitted with radio collars, and transported to Swanson Lakes for release on a lek the following early morning.

The story of Greater sage-grouse in Lincoln County is different. This bird disappeared from the county in the 1980s. The conservation work by WDFW, BLM, and local landowners made re-introduction of the species feasible. In 2008, WDFW began translocating sage-grouse from Oregon.

Male Greater sage-grouse also display on leks. The courtship is a strutting dance accompanied by hoots from air sacs and rough sparring. Sage-grouse are captured in modified salmon landing nets by spotlighting on the lek during moonless March nights when the females are visiting. It’s a true “snipe hunt” from scout camp! In the late night and early mornings before the dancing begins, birds roost on and around the edges of the lek. The light finds their eyes and a strobing effect keeps them mesmerized for netting. Like the sharp-tails, the sage-grouse are measured, banded, fitted with radio collars, and transported to Swanson Lakes for release the following morning.

From 2005 to 2013, more than 200 Columbian sharp-tailed grouse were imported to Swanson Lakes Wildlife Area. Nearly 300 Greater sage-grouse were brought in from 2008 to 2015. The populations are monitored each spring by surveys on leks. So far, the introductions have proved successful. In 2014, the sharp-tailed grouse population of Lincoln County was the highest in over a decade, remaining stable in 2015. A small population of Greater sage-grouse is successfully reproducing.

The Lincoln County prairie grouse story is one of restoring and conserving public and private lands. Only by protecting Washington’s remaining shrub-steppe landscapes will these wonderful native birds persist in Washington.