Government agencies, conservation groups, Sault Tribe teaming up to enhance bird habitats, lek sites in U.P. over next several years
By Chris Lamphere
Philosophical differences over the management of a natural resource can sometimes make it difficult for people to come together to pursue a common goal — though, Michigan’s sharp-tailed grouse has bucked that trend.
There’s something about urgency that can act as a catalyst for such cooperation.
During the last couple of years, that has been the case for the agencies, organizations, and individuals working to preserve one of Michigan’s most unique game birds.
Michigan’s Sharp-tailed Grouse
First documented in Michigan on Isle Royale in 1888, it is believed that sharptails moved into the U.P. from the west at the end of the state’s logging era in the late 19th century, when deforestation and massive forest fires created swaths of ideal grassland habitat.
Sharptails are known by hunters and birders alike for their elaborate courtship rituals: The males arch their wings, rattle their tails, stomp their feet, hoot, and generally make a scene in a valiant attempt to draw the attention of nearby females. Sharptails perform this ritual on dancing grounds called “leks.”
The birds became widespread across the U.P. and were even able to establish strong populations in the northern Lower Peninsula thanks to the trapping and transplantation efforts of wildlife biologists.
They maintained decent numbers into the 1950s and 1960s, but over time, much of the open acreage preferred by sharptails was gradually reclaimed by forests. Other factors also contributed to losses in sharptail habitat, including the planting of pines on nonforested public lands, improved fire suppression methods and changing agricultural practices.
By the 1980s, it is estimated that 90% of the sharptail’s habitat in Michigan was gone.
Avid bird hunter Stephen Rodock recalls going on his first sharptail hunt in the late 1980s or early 1990s.
As a boy, Rodock grew up hunting prairie chickens in Wisconsin, and sharptails intrigued him in part because they are very similar.
At first, Rodock hunted sharptails in the Upper Peninsula in conjunction with other upland game birds such as ruffed grouse. While initially a sideshow of Rodock’s U.P. excursions, sharptails eventually graduated to the main attraction.
While sharptails are considered a trophy grouse in Michigan, that’s not the only reason people like to hunt them; the appeal also has to do with the challenge.
“They’re fairly wary,” explained longtime (and recently retired) Department of Natural Resources Upland Game Bird Specialist Al Stewart in 2017. “Sometimes, when you enter a field, they flush out at the far side of the field. You know how pheasants are wary and wild late in the season? Sharp-tailed grouse are even more wary. You won’t get a lot of shots at them.”
A popular game bird for many years, the sharptail hunting season was closed in 1996 as a result of habitat loss and fears among wildlife biologists that further hunting pressures may lead to their complete eradication in Michigan.
About a decade later, the DNR reopened the season, as subsequent surveys found there were larger numbers of birds than previously believed.
Currently, there are two areas in Michigan where it’s legal to hunt sharptails: in Chippewa and Mackinac counties at the far eastern edge of the U.P.
Dave Jentoft, wildlife biologist for the DNR office in Sault Ste. Marie, said while the birds can be found in natural grasslands in other parts of the U.P., the hunting areas established for them in Chippewa and Mackinac counties are largely comprised of privately-owned farmlands. These open grassy areas, used most of the year for low-intensity agricultural activities such as growing hay and pasture for livestock, resemble the bird’s natural habitat; and since farming prevents the encroachment of forests, they provide a stable home for sharptails year after year.
Hunters who wish to access private lands in order to hunt sharptails have to either get permission from the property owner themselves or go through the state’s Hunter Access Program.
The current sharptail hunting season begins on Oct. 10 and ends on Oct. 31 for farms that allow sharptail hunting only, and from Sept. 15 through Nov. 10 for farms that are open for small game.
Given that there isn’t likely to be a significant expansion of open grassland in the eastern portions of Chippewa and Mackinac counties, Jentoft said he does not expect the established hunting zone to get any larger than it already is, at least for the foreseeable future.
So far, Jentoft said it doesn’t appear as though the limited hunting season has negatively affected the sharptail population. However, in other areas of the U.P. where they still exist, their numbers appear to be on the decline.
According to lek survey data collected by the U.S. Forest Service in the eastern Hiawatha National Forest, numbers of dancing and non-dancing male sharptails peaked between 2002 and 2004, when monitoring efforts detected more than 100 birds each year. From 2010 to 2021 (excluding 2020, when no survey was conducted due to office closures stemming from COVID-19), the average number of bird sightings each year was around 36; during the most recent five-year period, the average number of sightings was around 30.
Paul Thompson, forest terrestrial ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service, said the steep decline is believed to be due to a combination of factors, including reduced vegetative and snow cover, a dearth of connective corridors between populations, competition from non-native invasive species and habitat damage from illegal use of all-terrain vehicles.
Over the next couple of years, the Hiawatha National Forest, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and the Upper Peninsula Resource and Development Council will be working together to enhance sharptail habitats near Raco, in Chippewa County.
The habitat management effort was made possible through a $50,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and each participating entity will play a role in the project.
Sault Tribe member and assessment biologist Danielle Fegan will be researching the positive relationship between sharptails and fire, with the objective being to develop a stewardship plan utilizing prescribed burns eventually.
Thompson said fire performs several necessary functions, including burning off dead and dying plant material, exposing the soil to nutrients, and opening up the soil substrate for grass seeds to find purchase and germinate.
“The goal is to bring fire back to the landscape in the safest way possible,” Thompson said.
Also assisting from the Sault Tribe will be lead wildlife biologist Eric Clark, who will conduct wildlife surveys and create habitat models for project oversight and consultation purposes.
The Upper Peninsula Resource and Development Council will perform a vegetative analysis to determine the appropriate strategies for planting native grasses and dealing with invasive species.
Thompson said the project’s first phase will involve the prescribed burning of 2,000 acres in 2023, followed in 2024 with the planting of around 300 acres of warm-season grasses, which are adapted to infertile soil and respond well in areas disturbed by fire.
“This will enhance the cover and suitability of the landscape for the sharptails,” Thompson said. “We’re also trying to improve foraging conditions for young sharptails and create large openings for travel.
Hopefully, [these efforts] will start turning numbers around.”
Similar habitat management work is being done by Jentoft and fellow DNR wildlife biologist Heather Shaw near Munuscong Lake and in the Shingleton District.
Another project in the works is a collaboration between the Michigan Sharp-Tailed Grouse Association and Ruffed Grouse Society involving a 100-acre plus noncommercial aspen cut in the Hiawatha National Forest.
“These cuts are in areas not accessible by logging equipment, or the quality of the timber is so poor that it doesn’t have any marketable value, but we do not want to lose the aspen stand,” said STGA president Marty Sarrault, who explained that if an aspen stand becomes old enough that it starts to fall down and die, the stand will die out forever; but if the stand is cut, it will reproduce and regenerate.
“So (we) are having to … hand-cut these stands to save them,” Sarrault said. “And although the pretense was for ruffed grouse and woodcock, it will certainly benefit sharp-tailed grouse.”
While not directly related to sharptails, Sarrault said there is another initiative being undertaken in the Hiawatha National Forest to improve pollinator habitats, and these efforts could have positive knock-on effects for the birds.
“If it’s good for butterflies and bees, it’s good for sharptails,” said Sarrault, who has been pleasantly surprised by the recent level of cooperation between groups working to restore sharptail numbers.
“One thing I have found to be so ironic this year is that the three involved entities, state, federal and tribal are all focusing in the same direction, and to the best of my knowledge, they did not plan it that way,” Sarrault wrote in the Sharp-Tail Grouse Association’s March newsletter. “So between fire, cutting and re-introduction of native grasses, flowers/pollinators, I see a lot of exciting work being done.”
The Michigan United Conservation Clubs will be getting in on the sharptail action this summer, as well.
Through the organization’s On The Ground program, volunteers in August will gather at the Bullock Ranch Management Area in the eastern U.P. to remove brush and shrubs to enhance lek site conditions.
Those interested in learning more about upcoming On the Ground events can visit https://mucc.org/on-the-ground.
Sharptails can also be pursued in the Dakotas and Minnesota.