By Michael A. Schroeder, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW)
Greater sage-grouse and sharp-tailed grouse (collectively known as prairie grouse) continue to be priority species in the state of Washington. The greater sage-grouse is currently listed as threatened and the sharp-tailed grouse as endangered in the state. Both species depend on grasslands throughout the year, but sage-grouse depend on the leaves of sagebrush during winter and sharp-tailed grouse depend on the buds of deciduous shrubs and trees when snow covers the ground. The following provides an update for the two species in the state and county. Although normal spring surveys were severely impacted by the COVID-19 “stay-at-home” order, the early spring enabled completion of a sufficient number of surveys.
In spring 2020, 296 male greater sage-grouse were counted on 21 traditional breeding sites (leks) in Washington with the overall population estimated to be 770. Roughly 90% of the birds counted were associated with 17 leks in Douglas County. Most of the remaining birds were on the Yakima Training Center (3 leks), with a few in Lincoln County (1 lek). Even though the population in Douglas County was about the same in 2020 as it was in 1992, the population on the Yakima Training Center declined dramatically.
There is little doubt that the number of sage-grouse in Douglas County fluctuates a lot from year to year. Grouse in Douglas County are closely associated with remnant patches of sagebrush-dominated grassland and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). These habitats support nesting, brood-rearing, and wintering. The impact of CRP can be illustrated by the large decline in birds from 2010 through 2017. In the few years after 2010, roughly 100,000 acres of CRP was converted (some to cropland and some to other types of CRP). Because if takes a few years for new CRP fields to become established to the point where they can support grouse, the population didn’t start to recover until after 2017.
In spring 2020, 356 sharp-tailed grouse were counted on leks in Washington state with the overall population estimated to be 712 birds. This represented a 13% decrease from 2019. The population is distributed among eight populations in north-central Washington that are largely unconnected. The largest population is currently in the Dyer Hill area of northwestern Douglas County which is dominated by CRP. The second largest population is in the Nespelem area of Okanogan County which is dominated by native habitat managed by the Colville Confederated Tribes. Unlike with greater sage-grouse, the COVID-19 stay-at-home order cost two months that were critical for sharp-tailed grouse lek counts. It was clear that this restriction impacted lek counts.
Sharp-tailed grouse populations in Douglas County have been impacted by the abundance and quality of CRP, the frequency and intensity of wildfires, and translocations of sharp-tailed grouse from Idaho, Utah, and British Columbia. For example, the Barker Canyon Complex wildfire impacted approximately 81,000 acres in the area of the Big Bend population in 2012, directly affecting 3 leks. The combined number of birds on the affected leks declined from 25 in 2012 (before the wildfire) to 6 in 2013 (after the wildfire). Fortunately, more birds were observed on leks outside the fire perimeter in 2013.
The Dyer Hill population may have benefitted from a translocation of 59 grouse from Idaho, Utah, and British Columbia during the springs of 2005 through 2008. The establishment of abundant, high quality, CRP also benefited the birds in the Dyer Hill area. It took years for landowners to control invasive species like Dalmatian toadflax and produce the cover needed for nesting grouse. In addition, the sparsity of winter habitat was supplemented with the addition of planted water birch, a winter favorite.
Management and research
Management and research activities have included translocations of birds from Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, Utah, and British Columbia to populations throughout the state, monitoring of radio-marked grouse, Foster Creek Conservation District’s Habitat Conservation Plan, implementation and monitoring of CRP, and habitat restoration activities on wildlife areas. Douglas County continues to support both species of prairie grouse while sharp-tailed grouse have disappeared from Oregon, and sage-grouse numbers have dramatically declined in many other states.
Despite the positive results in Douglas County (and other counties), there have been setbacks, such as the Barker Canyon Complex wildfire in 2012 (81,000 acres burned), Douglas County Complex wildfire in 2015 (22,000 acres burned), and the Sutherland, Spartan, and Straight Hollow wildfires in 2017 (46,000 acres burned). Even this year, the Road 11 fire, which started on July 11, roared through approximately 10,000 acres of sage-grouse habitat around 2 traditional leks. All of this shows that conservation challenges never end.