Tympanuchus phasianellus Linnaeus, 1758

Text, map and photo from Storch I. (2000) : Grouse Action Plan 2000-2004,
reproduced here with the Editor's agreement

Synonyms:

Pedioecetes phasianellus

Common names:

Sharp-tailed grouse

English

Tétras à queue fine

French

Gallo de las praderas rabudo

Spanish

Photo: a male, by Winnifred Kessler

Conservation Status

IUCN 1996: Lower risk (least concern).
CITES 1998: not listed in Appendices.
National red data books: listed in some US states and Canadian provinces. T. p. columbianus is currently under consideration for federal (U.S.A.) listing as a 'threatened' or 'endangered' species.

 

Taxonomy

Six extant subspecies and one extinct subspecies recognised (del Hoyo et a. 1994).; T. p. caurus (Alaska sharp-tailed grouse), T. p. phasianellus (northern sharp-tailed grouse), T. p. kennicotti (northwestern sharp-tailed grouse), T. p. campestris (prairie sharp-tailed grouse), T. p. jamesi (plains sharp-tailed grouse), T. p. columbianus (Columbian sharp-tailed grouse), and T. p. hueyi (New Mexican sharp-tailed grouse). Their distribution and characteristics are described in Connelly et al. (1998).

 

Distribution

North America. Formerly the sharp-tailed grouse was widely distributed throughout steppe, grassland, and mixed-shrub habitats of central and northern North America. Current range has been reduced and fragmented, primarily in southern and southwestern portions. Occurs from Alaska east to southwestern Yukon, west and central Canada, and western U.S.A. east to the Great Plains. The northernmost distribution in Canada is scattered and poorly known. In the south, there are several scattered populations in Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. T. p. columbianus occupies 10 - 50% of its former range in the U.S.A. and 80% of its former range in British Columbia. Successful re-introductions to Oregon and portions of southern Idaho have helped slow the declines. (See Connelly et al.1998.)

 

Population size and trend

Due to extensive changes in habitat related to agricultural development, sharp-tailed grouse now occupy only parts of their former range. The species is still fairly common in Canada. Compared to the historic range, the distribution has become greatly reduced and fragmented in the eastern (Great Lakes) and western (Rocky Mountain region) portions. The sharp-tailed grouse is extinct in 8 states of the US, and occupies <50% of its former range in the remaining 9 states. In the populations south of central Canada, numbers have been stable to slightly declining since the 1950s, but have been increasing in Idaho and Utah since the 1980s (Connelly et al. 1998). There have been extensive changes in habitat of T. p. campestris, T. p. jamesi, and T. p. columbianus. Declines of T. p. columbianus have been particular dramatic; its total population size is estimated at 60-170.000 birds. Trends for T. p. campestris and T. p. jamesi have also been downward, but at a slower rate. Populations in the USA have been increasing thanks to the implementation of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) (R. Hoffman, pers. comm.) (Joyce et al. 1991, Dunn et al. 1993, Douglas and Schwartz 1993) (see 2.7.4 for details on CRP).

 

Habitat and ecology

Sharp-tailed grouse inhabit steppe, shrub steppe, savannah, shrublands, aspen parklands, and early successional forests. They use distinct seasonal habitats, and migratory movements have been documented up to >30km between summer ranges in open prairie landscapes to winter ranges in woody habitats. Breeding habitats are dominated by relatively dense herbaceous cover and shrubs for nesting, brood rearing, and roosting throughout the range, but the key species of grasses and shrubs may vary considerably. Leks are situated within or close to breeding habitat, and often on sites with less vegetation. Lek locations are generally, but not necessarily, stable from year to year. Great structural diversity of the habitat, including grasses, shrubs, and forbs, provides high-quality nesting areas; but sharp-tailed grouse may also nest in stubble fields. Broods depend on areas with abundant forbs rich in insects. In winter, sharp-tailed grouse rely on riparian areas, deciduous hardwood shrub gullies, and deciduous and open coniferous woods. Deciduous trees and shrubs are important for feeding, roosting and escape cover, including aspen Populus tremuloides, snowberry Symphoricarpos occidentalis, sagebrush Artemisia, willow Salix spp., and birch Betula spp. Sharp-tailed grouse eat a variety of fruits, seeds, grasses, forbs, herbs, and insects in spring and summer, and fruits, grain, buds, and catkins in autumn and winter. Although birds may feed in grain fields during autumn and winter when available, they require deciduous shrubs and trees for feeding during periods of continuous snow cover.

 

Hunting and cultural importance

Sharp-tailed grouse were an important food source for native Americans and early European settlers to the Great Plains and the western US and Canada. Its courtship display was mimicked in native American dances, and today, sharp-tailed grouse leks are a popular attraction for naturalists and bird-watchers as more people learn to appreciate the spectacular display of the birds. Market hunting and poaching may have had dramatic impacts on some populations during the 1800's and early 1900's. The species continues to be hunted extensively in much of its range but it is protected in five US-states. Autumn hunting seasons and bag limits are established based on tradition, public input, and population trends, and regulations vary considerably among states (US) and provinces (Canada). Harvest rates vary between years and regions, and there is little evidence that harvest negatively affects populations, although impacts may vary (Connelly et al. 1998). In the late 1970s, about 700.000 birds were harvested annually.

 

Principal threats

Habitat loss and degradation. Habitat loss due to large-scale conversion to cropland, pine plantations, or for urban development has resulted in the dramatic loss of sharp-tailed grouse in large portions of their original range. Habitat degradation due to overgrazing by livestock use, encroachment by noxious weeds and forest, and fire suppression has reduced the quality of many remaining prairie habitats; reduction in habitat quality may reduce survival and nesting and brood-rearing success.

Small population size. Related to loss and fragmentation of habitats, some local populations are threatened by small size. Small isolated populations may be vulnerable to declines in genetic heterogeneity and fertility, and subsequently, to extinction (Westemeier 1998) (see 2.6.2).

Pesticides and herbicides. Experimental evidence indicates that sharp-tailed grouse may suffer increased mortality due to pesticides, either directly through poisoning or indirectly due to increased susceptibility to predation. Herbicide treatment of rangeland may result in the loss of cover for nesting, brood-rearing, and loafing.

Human disturbance. Leks are frequently used for population surveys and wildlife viewing. Although the birds tolerate some disturbances, continued human presence at the lek appears to limit reproductive success and may result in regional population declines (see 2.6.5).

Research needs

Population dynamics. The influence of habitat and predation on adult survival, nest success, and survival of juveniles to the age of recruitment remains a poorly understood aspect of sharp-tailed grouse life history. Empirical research is needed on the effects of harvesting throughout the range.

 

Spatial population structure. Work is required on the effects of habitat fragmentation, dispersal behaviour, and on genetic relationships among individuals, leks, and populations to improve the understanding of population and metapopulation structure, dynamics, and viability.

Monitoring and assessment. Information on sex ratio, lek attendance by males and females, and lek stability is needed so that lek surveys can be used to adequately monitor populations of sharp-tailed grouse throughout their range.

Habitat management and restoration. Applied experiments are recommended to evaluate the long-term impacts of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and other management practices (such as grazing, burning, cultivation, fragmentation, restoration, and food plots) on populations of sharp-tailed grouse. The information necessary to adequately restore degraded habitats is largely unavailable. 

Northern populations. Virtually all research on sharp-tailed grouse has been done on the three southern subspecies (T. p. campestris, T. p. jamesi, and T. p. columbianus); the habitat and ecology of northern subspecies have not been adequately studied. There is an immediate need for baseline data on the Sharp-tailed grouse in central, northern, and western Canada.

 

Current conservation measures

Legal protection. Sharp-tailed grouse are legally protected throughout their range. Regulated harvest is permitted in 18 states and provinces; the species is totally protected in Prince Edward Island (Canada) and in New Mexico (US), where also trade is prohibited. T. p. columbianus is currently under consideration for federal (U.S.A.) listing as a 'threatened' or 'endangered' species.

Surveys and monitoring. The sharp-tailed grouse´s status is monitored and assessed on the basis of lek counts, harvest surveys, and wing collections by state agencies, and several private organisations support the conservation and management of the species. Monitoring efforts vary greatly in different parts of the range, however.

Habitat management. Sharp-tailed grouse generally respond to measures that increase or protect food sources, nesting cover, and winter habitats. There are examples how to develop and maintain grouse habitat successfully on cultivated land. For parts of the range, conservation strategies and management and recovery plans have been written, and habitat suitability index models have been developed (see refs. in Connelly et al. 1998). Manipulation of grazing by livestock and modification of fire regimes are primary tools used to improve the quality of habitat. Because nesting/brood-rearing habitat is usually considered to be a limiting factor, most efforts are directed toward increasing the protective cover of grasses and decreasing encroachment by forest. The CRP, a US federal agricultural set-aside programme launched in 1985 (Joyce et al. 1991, Dunn et al. 1993, Douglas and Schwartz 1993), has resulted in conversion of millions of ha of cropland to potential habitat for sharp-tailed grouse, with excellent success in some areas (see 2.7.4).

Translocation and reintroduction. First translocations of sharp-tailed grouse occurred in the 1800s and early 1900s. During the 1900s, re-introductions, transplants, and/or population augmentations have been tried many times, with mixed success. Most attempts failed or established only small temporary populations, and were poorly documented. Some recent translocations apparently have been successful (Connelly et al. 1998). Success of translocations appears to be related to the quantity of adequate habitat at the release site.

Food and water provision. Food and water provision have not been shown to influence populations on a large scale.

 

Priority conservation measures

Conservation plans. Conservation plans for each population of sharp-tailed grouse should be designed with the aid of public and private landowners and interested citizens. The conservation plans should include appropriate recommendations for habitat management, restoration, configuration, and acquisition in order to maintain long-term population viability. Efforts should be made to apply management recommendations in conservation plans with reasonable speed. Effective management strategies and conservation plans appear to be particularly urgent for declining populations of the subspecies columbianus and campestris.

Habitat preservation. Habitats should be preserved and vegetation manipulation avoided within a 2-km radius of lek sites, and in winter ranges. Sharp-tailed grouse habitat requirements should be integrated into land-use practices. The ongoing CRP programme (see above and 2.7.4) has the potential to provide millions of hectares of habitat for sharp-tailed grouse throughout their range. The programme is currently designed to produce relatively high quality prairie with a diversity of native grass and forb species.

Monitoring. Wildlife agencies should monitor leks throughout the range and provide this information to the land management agencies. 

Education. Resource managers and land owners should be educated about habitat requirements of the species, and incentives should be developed for land owners to provide habitat and food.

 

Correspondents

Jack Connelly, Rick Hoffman, David Mossop, Mike Schroeder

 

Key publication

Connelly, J. W., Gratson, M. W., and Reese, K. P. 1998. Sharp-tailed grouse. The birds of North America, No. 354. The birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.