Canadian sharp-tailed grouse find new home in Okanogan

A recent effort to increase population numbers of a state endangered species was so big that it traversed the governments of two countries, a Native American Tribe, a public utility district, a conservation district, several agencies, conservation groups, and a small army of biologists, veterinarians and volunteers.

For two weeks in late April, a team of biologists successfully captured sharp-tailed grouse in British Columbia, fitted them with transmitters for monitoring, and transported them to Washington where they were released.

The sharp-tailed grouse was historically an important gamebird in Washington. While its numbers may have once exceeded 100,000 in the state, human expansion over the years has reduced the bird’s habitat- usually native grasslands with sparse shrubs- to less than five percent of its historical range. As a result, the total population of sharp-tailed grouse has dropped below 1,000 birds in Washington, and the species is considered endangered in the state.

WDFW is making progress in recovering their numbers though. A special partnership was formed between WDFW and our Canadian counterparts at the British Columbia Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development (FLNRORD) to work on this effort. FLNRORD issued a special permit for WDFW to capture up to 40 sharp-tailed grouse in areas of the province that have healthy populations of the birds.

A team of biologists captured and transported the birds from the 70-Mile House area in British Columbia to the Scotch Creek and Tunk Valley areas of Okanogan County. A grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Working for Wildlife initiative, Pittman Robertson funds, and state funds helped to finance this operation, now in its second year.

Though it may not seem difficult to trap some birds, a lot of moving parts and variables make it a challenge. Grouse are early risers. They are generally up and at the lek- mating grounds where males dance to attract females- an hour before sunrise during mating season, the most efficient time to capture them. Because grouse are up early, biologists and other volunteers also have to be. During this mission, the biologists capturing the birds were usually in their blinds by 5 a.m., which for farther leks required departing the bunkhouse at 2:30. Not long after that, the male sharp-tailed grouse would show up on the leks and start dancing (strutting and inflating pouches on their necks), as well as cooing and flutter jumping (short flights into the air) to catch the attention of female grouse. The males also engage in standoffs and fights with each other to claim the best spots on the lek and the thus the most attention from females. You can see video of matches like these here.

Females, for their part, cackle as they approach the lek, exciting the males and making them dance faster and show off more, allowing biologists the chance to capture the distracted birds in traps.

During this operation, 19 males and 19 females, were captured; the first step in a long process to get them to Washington. From there, the grouse were examined and processed by a team of biologists. They were then driven to a Canadian veterinarian to be checked out, and transported to the Canadian/U.S. border. Once across the border and into the United States, the sharp-tailed grouse were examined again- this time by American veterinarians and biologists.

The challenge is that all these steps have to take place as quickly as possible, the goal being to release the birds within ten hours of capture. This reduces stress on them and increases their chance of survival following release. Many variables can slow things down, including the 300 mile drive to the border and delays associated with crossing an international border.

About half the birds were fitted with radio transmitters that will monitor their movement, use of habitat, and survival. Two grouse received the first ever solar-powered satellite transmitters used in the state on sharp-tailed grouse. These transmitters provide a more detailed picture of the bird’s movements than VHF radio transmitters, and therefore a better understanding of their habitat use. These transmitters were donated to WDFW by volunteer Leslie Robb.

All of the grouse were released at active leks where other sharp-tailed grouse were present. Some were on WDFW lands while others were released on private lands.

Data from transmitters indicates that, as of last week, most the translocated birds had stayed in the area where they were released, which is a good thing.

This translocation effort was a big success and WDFW would like to thank all the partners who made it happen: Colville Confederated Tribes; Douglas County PUD; Okanogan Conservation District; British Columbia Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development; and biologists from multiple agencies who volunteered on their own time. WDFW would also like to acknowledge the private landowners where the sharp-tailed grouse were released; support from these landowners is critical to recovery and very much appreciated.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.