WDFW releases sharp-tailed grouse as part of Okanogan Working for Wildlife Initiative

WDFW releases sharp-tailed grouse as part of Okanogan Working for Wildlife Initiative

Chase Gunnell / May 25, 2018 / Okanogan Working for Wildlife, Sagelands

Collaborative effort works to restore the Okanogan’s wildlife heritage

By Chase Gunnell, Communications Director

Earlier this month, our staff were lucky to join and assist with the release of sharp-tailed grouse in the Tunk Valley, a key habitat corridor connecting to north-central Washington’s Okanogan Valley.  A smaller cousin of the more well-known sage grouse, sharp-tailed grouse numbers are precariously low in Washington.

A pair of sharp-tailed grouse are released into north-central Washington’s Tunk Valley. Photo: Paul Bannick Photography

This effort to augment populations of this native bird is just one part of the collaborative Working for Wildlife Initiative, a coalition of state, federal, tribal and nongovernmental interests working together to protect wildlife habitat, working lands and natural heritage in the diverse landscape of the Okanogan Valley and Kettle River Mountain Range, funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and coordinated by Conservation Northwest.

Working with Canada’s Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) obtained permits to capture and transport Columbian sharp-tailed grouse (our regional sub-species) from the Cariboo region of south-central British Columbia, where they remain relatively numerous. A crew comprised of WDFW staff and volunteers, as well as staff with Colville Confederated Tribes Fish and Wildlife Department, Douglas County Public Utility District, and the Okanogan County Conservation District, then captured the birds and brought them south.

Sharp-tailed grouse are presently listed as Threatened in Washington state, with a proposal before the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission to uplist them to Endangered. These amazing birds, known for their extravagant dancing and drumming displays to attract mates, are limited to eight isolated populations scattered across Douglas, Lincoln, and Okanogan counties.

Sharp-tailed grouse dancing on a lek. Photo: HStiver

According to Conservation Northwest Sagelands Program Lead Jay Kehne, who attended the grouse releases, sharp-tails need a variety of shrub-steppe habitat to thrive, including tall grass for nesting, open ridges for mating and riparian areas with water birch for winter food and cover. This all makes the presence of sharp-tails a sign of habitat health, with benefits for a variety of other species.

Unfortunately, agricultural changes and reduction in lands protected under the federal Conservation Reserve Program are fragmenting grouse habitat into smaller and smaller pockets.

“If this species vanishes it means others might be soon to follow,” says Kehne.

Grouse in the Okanogan have been struggling from this type of habitat loss as well as the effects of large wildfires in 2015 and 2016. The Tunk Valley in particular is important habitat for sharp-tailed grouse, mule deer and other species as it connects the Okanogan Valley with the Okanogan Highlands to the east and the Kettle River Mountain Range beyond.

A sharp-tailed grouse takes flight, May 2018. Photo: WDFW

For May’s grouse release in the Tunk, access was granted by local landowners at two locations where native sharp-tails recently reestablished leks (dancing grounds) after the 2015 Tunk Block Fire. Despite the cold, mud, long waits, and paperwork required for importing wildlife, 33 birds were released by WDFW and partners, further adding to birds previously released in April.

Spokane Audubon and other partners contributed supplies and equipment in addition to National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grants. Pittman-Robertson Act funds, which authorize use of excise tax revenue from the sale of hunting, firearms and ammunition products for wildlife conservation, also supported this effort.

Our Major Gifts Director and award-winning wildlife photographer Paul Bannick was also present.

“To see this threatened bird released into the Tunk is an expression of optimism, of educated hope,” says Bannick. “Their release indicates that we believe we can not only preserve their habitat, but we can improve it and enable more birds to survive in the future.”

“It was inspiring,” says Kehne. “But it also made me realize how easy it is to almost lose a native species. And how hard we all have to work to get them back.”

Through the Working for Wildlife Initiative and our Sagelands Heritage Program, Conservation Northwest is working with partners and facilitating innovative collaborations to maintain, restore and connect shrub-steppe landscapes for the good of both wildlife and people.

A pair of sharp-tailed grouse take wing to their new home in the Tunk Valley, thanks to restoration efforts by WDFW and partners. Photo: Paul Bannick Photography