Sharp-tailed grouse, icon of northern plains and prairies, benefit from Pheasants Forever's habitat mission
By Tori J. McCormick
Sharp-tailed grouse once so dominated the landscape across the Northern Great Plains that pioneers said their innumerable flocks could blot out the sun as they flushed across the horizon.
But populations of this charismatic, native bird have hit hard times as their preferred grassland and brushland habitat keeps disappearing over the last several decades in several states and provinces.
There's good news though: Through creative habitat initiatives and partnerships, as well as providing policy advice to landowners on how to access and implement certain Farm Bill conservation programs, Pheasants Forever is positively impacting sharp-tailed grouse and, by extension, the upland hunters who pursue them.
“Sharptails are my favorite upland game to hunt … there’s just something incredibly appealing to walking that big, open prairie after a bird that’s always been here,” says Matt Morlock, Pheasants Forever’s South Dakota state coordinator in Brookings. “That’s why working with landowners and our partners is so important.
SOUTH DAKOTA GRASSLAND
One new cost-share partnership program for grassland producers in western South Dakota is targeting expired and or expiring Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land to maintain those acres as grassland. PF has teamed up with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, the South Dakota Grassland Coalition and others to promote such CRP acres as “working lands” for sustainable livestock grazing. PF and its partners provide roughly 50 percent of cost-share funding for fencing and water infrastructure for approved participants. To date, 29 ranchers have signed 10-year contracts impacting nearly 40,000 acres.
“This partnership benefits producers, livestock, and habitat for sharptails and other grassland birds,” says Morlock, adding PF is a partner in a similar initiative as part of the Northern Great Plains Joint Venture.
NORTH DAKOTA PROJECT
Another PF initiative helping maintain and improve grassland in southwest North Dakota is the Southwest Grazing Improvement Project.
Rachel Bush, PF North Dakota State Coordinator in Dickinson, said the project works with livestock producers to improve the overall health of their grasslands, soil and water. A major project feature uses fencing and water infrastructure to install rotational grazing systems that nurture grassland regeneration.
One section, or paddock, is grazed for a short period of time and then allowed to rest for a longer period. Project funding comes from North Dakota’s Outdoor Heritage Fund, as well as matching dollars from PF and individual landowners. Seven projects have been completed, improving nearly 3,500 acres.
“It’s a win-win for producers and wildlife,” says Bush. “Beef is good for birds like sharptails.”
A centerpiece of U.S. farm policy for more 30 years and a PF national policy priority, Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) grasslands are a well-documented boon for pheasant production. But the program’s mix of native grasses and forbs also benefits sharp-tailed grouse as nesting and brood-rearing habitat, say Morlock and state upland biologists.
For example, plains sharp-tailed grouse populations — one of six subspecies — in parts of southwestern Wyoming, northeastern Colorado and the Nebraska Panhandle showed strong increases, including some range expansion, after establishment of CRP grasslands, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
CRP also benefits rare Columbian sharp-tail grouse in several states. In one study in northwestern Colorado, 26 percent of all known courtship leks were in CRP, though such areas comprised just 3 percent of the study area.
“PF’s advocacy for habitat programs like CRP impacts a broad spectrum of grassland birds, including sharptails,” says Morlock.
Tori McCormick writes about conservation, the environment and the outdoors from his home in Shakopee, Minnesota.
This article opriginally appeared in the spring issue of
Pheasants Forever Journal.