Dancing Grouse May Return

Sharp-tailed grouse deserve to once again dance on the prairies of western Montana

By Rob Breeding

Years ago, while living in Flagstaff, Arizona, yet pining to return to Montana, I read a story about a bird and a place, neither of which I’d ever seen. The Flathead’s very own Ben Long, writing for High Country News, had penned the obituary for the sharp-tailed grouse of Tobacco Valley, the last place the dancing birds still lived in Montana west of the divide.

I knew a little bit about those birds, how they were ghosts in the Bitterroot Valley where I’d previously lived in Montana. The upland game birds in the Bitterroot are all imports now. Huns from Europe, pheasants from Asia, and a growing population of California quail.

They’re all fine birds, but these non-natives don’t dance.

As Long described, sharptails no longer returned to the leks — the dance floor where in the spring male grouse perform for females in the hope they’ll return their desire — at the Little Prairie Reserve near Eureka. The reason was banal even then, at the start of the new century. Development encroached on the small island of grassland habitat, to the point that even relocating birds wasn’t enough to keep the population alive.

The good news for fans of dancing birds, and those who like knowing the flora and fauna of a place remains intact, is that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is proposing to reintroduce sharptails in western Montana. And our improving accuracy in identifying species using genetic analysis has made this task a bit easier.

Those birds in Eureka were Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, a subspecies distinct from the plains sharptail found east of the divide in places like the Sweet Grass Hills. At least that’s what we thought. Conventional wisdom once said the sharptails of western Montana were all Columbians, but genetic analysis of DNA from birds collected in western Montana in the past has painted a more complex picture.

Chris Hammond, an FWP wildlife biologist in Kalispell, recently explained that DNA analysis of those western Montana birds showed they were plains sharptail, not the Columbian subspecies that ranges from Washington across Idaho, Utah and Colorado.

Hammond said research now suggests Columbians might not be a subspecies at all, but instead just another flavor of the good old plains variety. That’s a matter for the geneticists to settle, but the identification of plains sharptail genes from birds west of the mountains has made the prospects of reintroduction less daunting. There are fewer Columbian sharptail, and getting birds to relocate requires the assistance of at least one of those states where the birds dance free.

When it comes to plains sharptail, however, Montana has a ready surplus. Just ask ranchers east of the mountains who contend with flocks of grouse tearing up their hay bales every winter.

The Tobacco Valley is no longer suitable for reintroduction, and habitat on the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ land on the southern end of Flathead Lake isn’t ideal either. But FWP has proposed reintroduction at three other sites — both the Bitterroot and Blackfoot river valleys, as well as near Drummond. The Tribes remain interested in reintroducing sharptails, so that may still happen as well.

FWP’s draft plan is available on its website and the agency is collecting public comment.

Sharp-tailed grouse have long been a favorite of mine. My eventual migration north from Arizona included a two-year stay in eastern Idaho, and there on the Curlew National Grassland, my first bird dog, Jack, and I learned to hunt together. We pursued Columbian sharptails, a fine species for a pair of inexperienced hunters to learn from.

So even if the reintroduced birds never return to huntable levels, sharp-tailed grouse deserve to once again dance on the prairies of western Montana.

’Cuz if the birds can’t dance, who wants to be part of their reintroduction?