Captivated one spring by the riveting sight of the Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse on his traditional dancing grounds, strutting and stomping to attract females and show other males his dominance, biologist Penny Ohanjanian now hopes to restore them to some of their historic habitat.
This year, she’s conducting a feasibility study in the East Kootenays into whether the very-particular needs of this disappearing species of grouse can be met on particular properties in the area.
With funding from the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program and Teck Metals Ltd., she is exploring the possibility of re-introducing the grouse onto Teck reclamation lands and in the Wycliffe conservation area.
Ohanjanian says it’s very neat to watch on the leks or dancing grounds, the annual antics of the Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse: tail high and head low, with wings out as he shows his colours, strutting and stomping the ground, for the approval of a female to mate with.
She says old-timers in the area have told her of leks, but some are now developed and all are unoccupied by grouse. Decades ago, the grouse were common in that area, but they are difficult to re-introduce.
She was asked to do a project in the 90s on these grouse and she did flush two birds in the Wycliffe area and had reports of other sightings, but another study indicated there may not be enough habitat remaining, partly because of forest in-growth.
And, where she had flushed those two 20 years ago, there’s now a brand new big house.
“They need high-profile, thick growth in which to nest. The residual grasses from the previous year are vital—providing hiding cover for the birds when they start nesting. Good stands of perennial bunch grasses, for instance,” she explains.
But, such residual cover grasses are often lost due to winter grazing by elk in the area.
One of the other requirements of this grouse is overwintering habitat of shrubs such as wild roses, saskatoons, hawthorn and chokecherry.
While in summer grouse eat vegetation and invertebrates such as grasshoppers and beetles, in winter they take cover in bushes or under the snow and will eat buds from the bushes.
Ohanjanian says Teck Metals’ Sullivan Mine tailings ponds have now been restored and re-vegetated and they are fenced to prevent public access.
Part of the current project is to assess whether these will provide grouse with some of their requirements.
Grouse are particularly sensitive to disturbance while on the lek and the fence would help with that.
This summer she has been measuring habitat in the area to determine whether there is enough food and cover to re-introduce sharptails.
Today, they remain on just a percentage of their historic range in B.C., and they’re virtually gone from the East Kootenays and many U.S. states.
“It’s a significant loss,” she comments, and it makes one aware of the importance of grasslands in providing habitat for such species.
If Ohanjanian finds there is adequate vegetative cover and feed in the area, this project likely will continue next year with a plan for re-introduction of the Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse, so they may once again dance to attract mates in spring in the East Kootenays.
The HCTF exists because hunters, anglers, guides and trappers contribute money towards projects that maintain and enhance the health and biodiversity of this province’s fish and wildlife and their habitat—and toward education about those natural resources.
Since 1981, they have contributed more than $130 million through surcharges on their annual licences, with this funding administered by an independent foundation board of volunteers from around B.C.
However, anyone can contribute toward the HCTF and support projects like this with their donations. For more information about the HCTF, go to the website at: www.hctf.ca