International cooperation supports sharp-tailed grouse recovery
Birds might not need photo identification to travel, but that doesn’t mean transporting them across international borders is simple. Since 2018, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has been working with biologists in British Columbia, Canada and other partners to bring Columbian sharp-tailed grouse to Washington to boost endangered stateside populations.
The Columbian sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus columbianus) is a Washington state endangered bird and the rarest subspecies of sharp-tailed grouse. Washington populations may have once numbered in the hundreds of thousands, but today, the total population is less than 600 birds. These remaining birds occupy less than five percent of their historical range in seven remnant populations in Douglas, Lincoln, and Okanogan counties.
A population of Columbian sharp-tailed grouse in southern British Columbia (B.C.), however, is doing well thanks to some unique, temporary habitat. Grasslands and shrubsteppe is the sharp-tailed grouses’ typical habitat, with its abundant perennial bunchgrasses and forbs and low density of tall vegetation. The grouse is not often found in timberlands, but researchers have found that the birds are utilizing timber stands in the years following a disturbance — like timber harvest or a wildfire — that results in habitat characteristics more appealing to the birds. When the trees regrow five to 15 years later, the grouse move on and seek out more suitable habitat in other locations.
WDFW and partners are working together to bolster Washington’s sharp-tailed grouse population by relocating birds from B.C. to Washington to augment the endangered population. Besides simply increasing the number of birds, bringing grouse from Canada to Washington aims to increase the genetic diversity of the endangered population, improving its chance of recovery. The goal is to relocate approximately 40 birds with each capture effort.
While a straightforward idea on paper, the process of relocating these birds starts many months in advance as partners work together to get necessary permits, permissions, lab connections, and equipment before any birds are transported. When it’s finally time to capture the birds, biologists set a carefully choreographed process in motion to ensure the health, safety, and successful release of the grouse.
Biologists begin by deploying walk-in traps at grouse gathering sites, known as leks, the evening before they hope to capture birds. The biologists return the next morning to arm the traps in the cold, dark hours before dawn, before the grouse rise to perform their courtship rituals at the lek. Then, it’s a waiting game to see how many grouse walk into the traps.
Once biologists retrieve the birds from the traps, they are weighed, sexed, and assessed for general health and wellness. Every bird is tested for avian influenza and salmonella; great care is taken not to transport these or other pathogens across borders and between populations. In addition to the health exam, biologists fit each captured bird with an identification band and a tracking collar so that they can be monitored once they reach their destination in Washington.
After this initial exam is complete, the grouse are placed in individual carrying crates and settled in for a comfortable, air-conditioned drive from capture sites in B.C. to release sites near Omak, Washington — an approximately 300-mile international trip. Biologists go through normal border crossing procedures as well as additional inspections for the transport of wildlife. Veterinarians from both nations’ governments review the animals at different stages of the journey. The primary objective throughout the process remains the same; deliver healthy grouse to Washington while minimizing the time the birds spend in transit and in the care of people.
When the sharp-tailed grouse finally make it to their release sites at WDFW Wildlife Areas and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, they are released from their transport carriers and eagerly make their way into their new environment. Using satellite and radio collars, WDFW biologists track and monitor the movements of the relocated birds. GPS data allows biologists to see how the birds move across the landscape, note where they decide to settle in, and track mortalities or abnormalities. Feathers collected from the Canadian birds during capture are retained to compare DNA to feathers found on American leks. In addition to tracking collar data, this DNA comparison can help biologists understand where the relocated birds are on the landscape following release.
Collaborative efforts are essential to the persistence of imperiled species in Washington. This complex effort was made possible by partners from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, funding from WDFW and Conservation Northwest, disease testing from B.C. Animal Health Centre, and permitting assistance from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Learn more about endangered species conservation in Washington and how you can help by visiting our At-Risk Species webpage.