Sharp tailed Grouse
Barely Hanging On

Game Range Ramblin's

Game Range Articles
by Mike Thompson,
FW&P wildlife biologist,
writing for the Pathfinder



August 2, 2001
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson

"What a tangled web we weave," clucked the male sharp-tailed grouse as he sized up his unlikely predicament.

It had seemed like any other spring morning on the old breeding grounds near Helmville. There was even a new hen on the dancing ground. True, she seemed a little stiff, even in the face of the male's most virulent courting displays. But, she did not retreat as the male advanced to perpetuate the species.

Almost as soon as they touched he noticed a restriction in his normal range of movement. First, one leg, then a wing was constrained somehow. Still, he didn't panic until he noticed the cold emptiness in her eyes.

Fortunately, help was only moments away. Before he knew it, he found himself in the skilled and gentle hands of Ben Deeble, and he understood that he'd met his own "lady in red." It was a set up!

Too late. The radio transmitter was already affixed to his body, blood had been drawn, and his weight recorded. Suddenly, he was aware of his freedom and as he fluttered past the object of his earlier affection he saw clearly that she was just a dummy. A product of taxidermy, that is. With a deviously concocted tangle of slipknots hanging from all parts of her stuffed carcass.

His last image of the incident was the sweep of Ben's huge hand grabbing the petite decoy by a leg and swinging it beside him all the way back to the pickup truck.

For five bonus points toward an as yet undetermined prize of no worth whatsoever, what game bird that is native to the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range no longer occurs there?

Unfortunately, this is not a trick question. It is, indeed, the sharp-tailed grouse that we've apparently lost on the Game Range, and across most of the Ovando-Helmville valley, in the past 20 years or so.

Yet, sharp-tails are otherwise widely distributed and locally abundant east of the Continental Divide in Montana, the Dakotas, Michigan, Wisconsin and southern Canada, and populations persist (although some are declining) in other states west of the Divide. They seem to be doing especially well in Idaho.

Why not here?

That's a question that Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) first asked Ben Deeble when he began his masters thesis at the University of Montana in 1993, and is still asking today while Ben continues his work on a part-time basis as a consulting biologist.

Possible answers are many and varied. The most obvious factor, perhaps, is of very limited importance in this case. Sharp-tailed grouse have not been legal to hunt west of the Continental Divide in Montana for about 40 years.

The taxonomy of sharp-tails is a complicating factor. Two subspecies are currently recognized. The plains sharp-tail is the one that occurs in great abundance east of the Divide. Generally, the more isolated and less abundant populations west of the Divide are considered to be of the Columbian subspecies. Whether there is a genetic explanation for the general declining trend in the Columbian subspecies is anybody's guess at this time.

The Helmville population persists quite close to the Divide, and within about 35 miles of the nearest known population of plains sharp-tails. One of Ben's objectives has been to collect blood samples from Helmville birds for genetic analysis to determine whether we have the plains or Columbian subspecies.

But, he's been running out of birds to capture. Last spring, he observed only one male at the Helmville dancing ground, and rumors only support the existence of another 20 birds or so in the entire valley.

Managers are contemplating the pros and cons of supplementing the Helmville population with birds from Idaho or elsewhere to take advantage of the presence of native birds as teachers for others, before all historic knowledge of dancing grounds and habitats is lost forever.

And, boy, does one old male have a story to tell!