Sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus) were originally found throughout substantial portions of central and western North America, including a large portion of Canada and Alaska. Although there are 6 subspecies of sharp-tailed grouse in North America, only the Columbian subspecies (T. p. columbianus) is found in Washington. Columbian sharp-tailed grouse were originally distributed from southern British Columbia, through northeastern California, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and western Montana. The current range of sharp-tailed grouse in Washington is restricted to isolated populations in the north-central portion of the state. Remaining populations are within relatively intact habitat including shrubsteppe, meadow steppe, steppe, and riparian shrub, as well as Conservation Reserve Program fields (CRP). The last hunting season was in 1987.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has a goal to recover threatened populations of sharp-tailed grouse in Washington. The state has listed the species as threatened, developed management strategies to improve their habitat, initiated research on their life history requirements, conducted detailed analyses of population genetics throughout the sharp-tailed grouse range, and begun experimental translocations to increase and expand populations. Habitat improvements include the reduction of grazing pressure, transition of cropland (mostly wheat) to grass-dominated habitats (such as in the federally-funded Conservation Reserve Program [CRP]), restoration of native habitat, and planting of key components of winter habitat such as trees and shrubs.
Sharp-tailed grouse males congregate on traditional display sites, called leks, to display to and breed with females. In Washington, a ‘large’ lek may have more than 15 males in attendance during spring. Because these leks are traditional, WDFW conducts annual counts of the number of birds on leks as a way of monitoring rates of population change in the state. Most leks are on private land. It is important for bird watchers to treat private land with respect and avoid disturbing the birds.
All photos unless otherwise indicated are courtesy of Michael A. Schroeder