Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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MI: Group seeks return of sharptails in the Lower

Mio, Mich.- Jake Halman looked out over the lush green prairie
in Ogemaw County with a grin on his face.

“I can take you to places in the Upper Peninsula that look just
like this and they have sharptails there,” he said.

“That’s what we wanted to know,” said Kim Piccolo, a ranger with
the U.S. Forest Service. Piccolo and retired DNR biologist Jerry
Weinrich recently took Halman and other members of the Michigan
Sharp-tailed Grouse Association on an exploratory tour to some of
the pine barrens and prairies in the Huron-Manistee National
Forests.

The goal of the trip was to determine if these areas – most created
by recent wildfires – featured the habitat required by sharp-tailed
grouse. The association would like to restore grassland ecosystems
in Michigan, which happen to be the prefered habitat of
sharptails.

“Some of the areas looked pretty good,” Dave Markle, MSGA vice
president told Michigan Outdoor News. “Overall, I was impressed
with what I saw.”

The sharp-tailed grouse is a medium-sized prairie grouse. It
requires open areas like barrens and prairies to survive. It’s
known as “fire grouse” or “fire bird” by Native Americans because
it relies on wildfires to maintain those open areas.

According to Michigan DNR records, the first documented sighting of
a sharp-tailed grouse in Michigan occurred in 1888 on Isle Royale.
Although the birds have never been documented as native to the
Lower Peninsula, biologists believe they were, because of the
suitable habitat, found in southwestern Michigan.

Sharp-tailed grouse were widespread across the Upper Peninsula
following the logging era, but as the habitat returned to forests,
the sharptail population spiraled downward.

At the same time, trap-and-transfer efforts by the Department of
Conservation resulted in the establishment of populations in
suitable habitat across the northern Lower Peninsula.

Forest regeneration eventually eliminated much of the sharptail’s
open grassland habitat. By the late 1980s, an estimated 90 percent
of sharp-tailed grouse habitat had disappeared. Only a remnant
population remained in the eastern Upper Peninsula.

In more recent years, the DNR Wildlife Division and the Forest,
Mineral and Fire Management Division formed a coalition with the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Hiawatha National Forest, and
the Michigan Sharp-tailed Grouse Association to manage for more
open space on the east end of the U.P. That effort resulted in a
sharp-tailed grouse season in a limited portion of the eastern U.P.
last year, the first sharptail season since 1996. The season ran
Oct. 10-31 in portions of Mackinac and Chippewa counties. The daily
bag limit was two birds, the possession limit was four, and the
season bag limit was six.

According to a preliminary draft of the DNR’s 2010 Sharp-tailed
Grouse Harvest Survey, approximately 400 hunters participated in
the season, and they combined to kill about 200 sharptails. They
spent 1,400 hunter days afield.

“I’d say that was a pretty good,” said Al Stewart, the DNR’s upland
game bird specialist.

A similar coalition like the one in the U.P. would benefit the
reintroduction effort in the Lower. And the timing is perfect, as
both the DNR and the U.S. Forest Service, which manages Michigan’s
national forests, are managing public lands now for more open
grassland areas, which benefits a wide variety of plants, birds,
and wildlife.

“I think the most promising areas for sharp-tailed grouse
reintroduction is our pine barrens and prairies,” Piccolo said.
“Our 10-year goal (according to the 2006 Huron-Manistee Forests
Management Plan) is to restore 3,000 acres of grasses in the Mio
and Oscoda (forest management) districts, and over 50 years to
create over 40,000 acres of barrens.”

Most of that management revolves around controlled burning to keep
the areas open.

That effort sits well with Markle.

“To get the DNR and the Forest Service to start managing for open
areas and leaving them open and not plant trees is a big
step,” Markle said. “They’re both on the same page now, and that’s
great.

“One of the problems we have in the Lower Peninsula is that a lot
of people just don’t want anything to do with sharptails. They
think of them as being birds from out West and that they’ll hurt
other forms of hunting, but it won’t hurt deer hunting and it won’t
hurt ruffed grouse hunting because you still have all the edge
cover.”

Currently there is no formal plan to reintroduce sharptails to the
Lower Peninsula. But with the state and federal governments
managing for open areas, the possibility exists. But there are
hurdles.

“Sharptails in the Lower Peninsula is feasible,” Stewart said. “But
they need open land, and it costs money to keep that land
open.”

With budget cuts slicing deeply into state and federal conservation
funding, there isn’t much money available right now for a new
program. Funding for sharptail reintroduction likely would need to
come from a private source.

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