Minnesota sharptails to replenish Wisconsin supply

Bemidji, Minn. — A group of eight Minnesota sharp-tailed grouse are now checking out their new digs, part of a pilot project between agencies in Wisconsin and the Minnesota DNR to trap and transfer the birds to a sharpie-starved region of northwest Wisconsin. There likely soon will be others joining them.

It’s part of likely a three-year project – described now as a pilot – designed to reinvigorate the sharptail population of the Moquah Barrens of Wisconsin, part of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. The project is headed up by Tom Doolittle, Forest Service wildlife biologist at in the C-NNF’s Washburn District.

DNR wildlifers in Minnesota have an important role: Point grouse trappers to active leks (breeding areas).

Wisconsin officials contacted the Minnesota DNR with “an interest in re-establishing (the sharptail) population in Wisconsin,” said Ruth Anne Franke, Minnesota DNR area wildlife supervisor in Karlstad. Franke said the Forest Service, working with the Wisconsin DNR, the Wisconsin Sharptail Society, and tribal entities, obtained a permit to take about 200 grouse back to Wisconsin, with criteria regarding how many might be trapped from a particular lek.

In general, according to Franke, there must be at least 15 sharpies at a lek, and just a certain percentage of birds can be taken over that number – “surplus” birds.

Doolittle said it’s hoped about three-fourths of the birds taken will be females.

Trapping began about a week ago, and will wrap up in about a month – the length of the mating season.

“They’re working pretty intensely right now,” she said of the trapping effort.

It’s a long ride back to Wisconsin from Minnesota – some four to six hours, depending on where the birds are captured.

The sharptails are captured in walk-in “funnel traps,” said Hilary Markin, a public affairs officer for the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. That, and steps taken thereafter, are “all about lessening the stress on the birds,” Markin said.

Blood and feather samples are gathered, and future testing of the samples likely will aid wildlife biologists in both states regarding knowledge of the sharptails, including genetic info – “information sharing and shared data,” Doolittle said, regarding how both Minnesota and Wisconsin stand to benefit.

In Duluth, Markin said, there’s a stop-over for a health inspection by wildlife veterinarians before the birds are given clearance to enter Wisconsin.

When the birds and their transporters reach the 22,000-acre Moquah Barrens, the sharpies are released together with the flip of a switch, Markin said.

Doolittle said trapping usually wraps up by around 8 a.m., and the shipment is on the road by 9:30-10 a.m. The goal is to release them by around 5 p.m. There’s no “over-nighting” of birds.

Franke said sharptails are trapped in Minnesota throughout much of the northwest, from International Falls to Crookston to Thief River Falls. And, they’re being trapped on public land, as well as private land – with landowner permission.

“It’s about relationships in a big way,” Doolittle said. 

“If it weren’t for the private landowners, we wouldn’t have a project,” he said, adding that northwestern Minnesota landowners have been extremely “gracious” in early efforts.

Minnesota DNR officials serve to point folks toward good sharptail areas.

“We’ve provided (the grouse trappers) information about known (mating) sites,” Franke said. “The birds will come from all over.”

One location where there won’t be any trapping done is where DNR researcher Charlotte Roy is conducting a sharptail study, looking at how sharptails respond to various types of habitat improvements – things like prescribed burning and brush mowing, according to Franke. There also are “control sites” associated with the study.

When that wraps up, those areas might be available for trapping by Wisconsin officials next year.

There’s no concern about depletion of sharptails in northern Minnesota because of the Wisconsin effort, Franke said. She describes the population as in pretty good shape – threatened more by habitat changes brought about largely by the loss of federal Conservation Reserve Program acres. Much of that conversion has led to more row crops in certain areas, something that’s not particularly suitable to sharptail production.

“But in other parts (where habitat isn’t being lost), they’re still doing just fine,” she said.

It’s been a different story in the Moquah Barrens, where, according to the Forest Service, “droughty soils and frequent fires maintained the openness of the barrens. Today, however, after decades of fire protection, some rather dense forest stands have developed, and some of the openings, which were common in the past, are now being filled with woody debris.”

But in the sharptail project plan, officials say recent efforts have “greatly improved” habitat in the Moquah Barrens.

The short-term objective of the project is to “re-establish a viable population of (sharptails) in Moquah Barrens, an area that was part of the species’ historic range and where numbers are critically low (just four dancing males were observed during a 2014 survey).”

A few of the Minnesota birds released in Wisconsin will be fitted with “necklace-type transmitters,” Markin said, which will allow them to be tracked – quite frequently initially, but gradually less so, until next spring. That will allow for the monitoring of movement as well as survival.

Funding for the project has come largely via the USDA’s Lake Superior Landscape Restoration Partnership. Wisconsin Indian tribes in Wisconsin (Red Cliff and Bad River bands) also have contributed to the effort.

Far from being deemed a success, wildlife officials thus far are happy with the progress being made.

“The ones brought back are sitting tight (not flying out of the barrens area), so that’s great,” Markin said. “It’s a cool thing to restore a native species back onto the landscape.”

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