When Tom Rusch first started working in the Tower area wildlife office 30-some years ago he would see sharp-tailed grouse at a half-dozen locations across his district.

Each spring Rusch and other Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wildlife staff monitored as many as 30 different sharp-tailed grouse dancing and mating grounds, called leks, where they counted how many birds showed up.

But as the open land that the birds desperately need slowly filled in with trees and brush, the grouse slowly disappeared. Fewer and fewer dancing grounds were being used each spring.

And this year there was no dancing at all.

“First I lost them around Cherry. Then up around Cook. And then Palo. … And this year we lost them at Sax-Zim,” said Rusch, now the DNR wildlife manager for the Tower area. “This is the first year with zeros across the board. … From 30 to zero in 30 years.”

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Two sharp-tailed grouse on a dancing ground, or lek. The number of lek's in eastern Minnesota has plummeted in recent years, so much so that the future of the bird in the region is in question. 
Contributed / Minnesota Sharptail Grouse Society
Two sharp-tailed grouse on a dancing ground, or lek. The number of lek's in eastern Minnesota has plummeted in recent years, so much so that the future of the bird in the region is in question. Contributed / Minnesota Sharptail Grouse Society

Across most of east-central Minnesota the story is the same. Sharp-tailed grouse numbers exploded when the region was first cleared, burned and farmed by European settlers a century ago — so much so that early settlers said the flocks in flight sometimes blocked out the sun. But since then, their habitat has been growing over with trees and brush or tall crops like corn. Numbers have been declining since the 1950s, but it’s been getting much worse much faster in recent years.

As recently as 2010 there were 70 leks with flocks the DNR was keeping track of across the east-central zone. In 2019 that was down to 30. This spring they found birds on only 18 of them.

The situation is so dire that this year, for the first time, the DNR has canceled the east-central hunting season. Biologists say it is uncertain if it will ever reopen because harvesting even a few birds from some leks could wipe out local populations. (The east-central region covers parts of St. Louis, Koochiching, Carlton, Itasca, Aitkin, Pine and Kanabec counties.)

Sharp-tailed grouse in Minnesota have gone from a species of great abundance to officially classified as a “species in greatest conservation need.”

Size matters

Studies show sharp-tailed grouse need vast, open areas of at least two square miles to sustain viable populations. And then it takes a concerted effort by wildlife managers and willing landowners to keep the land open.

“And we just don’t have that minimum size in very many areas any more,’’ said Charlotte Roy, the DNR’s grouse project leader.

A hunter and his dog on a sharp-tailed grouse hunt. The Minnesota DNR has canceled the 2021 sharptail grouse hunting season in east-central Minnesota becasue the bird's numbes have dropped so low.
Sam Cook / 2016 file / Duluth News Tribune
A hunter and his dog on a sharp-tailed grouse hunt. The Minnesota DNR has canceled the 2021 sharptail grouse hunting season in east-central Minnesota becasue the bird's numbes have dropped so low. Sam Cook / 2016 file / Duluth News Tribune

Many people probably haven’t noticed the decline, Rusch notes, because it’s happened over decades. But far less fire on the landscape, far less farming in the region, more tree farms and nature simply regenerating the forest have all combined to fill in the open land the birds need to survive.

“People see an injured animal and it’s only natural that they want to help it. But habitat loss is incremental and people just don’t see it,’’ Rusch said. “Sharp-tails are blinking out along with their habitat.”

Bill Berg, a now-retired DNR wildlife biologist, started to notice the problem back in the 1970s.

“There were sharp-tails way up in Grand Marais. There were sharp-tails out on Isle Royale. … I think people don’t realize how open this country was back in the day,” Berg noted.

But as the forest grew back from that initial logging and years of widespread fire, the open land filled in with trees.

“We used to keep track of 17 leks in Itasca County alone. By the time I retired (in 2001) there were none; all gone,” said Berg, who has been beating the drum for more sharp-tail habitat for decades. “There just aren’t enough sharp-tail hunters any more. There’s not enough people who care. … That’s the sad part. We’re watching this species disappear from the landscape and not many people really seem to care.”

Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Within a few years, sharp-tailed grouse, once common across most of the state, likely will be limited to a few counties in far northwestern Minnesota where there are fewer trees to encroach. But "even up there, some areas will probably lose them,’’ Berg noted.

The firebird without fire

The demise of fire, both wild and human-caused, is a huge factor in the decline. The birds — native to Minnesota — for millennia depended on wildfires to clear land for their habitat, so much so that Native Americans referred to them as the firebird. The influx of settlers, the massive logging of the 19th and early 20th century and the abundance of small farms across the region also helped clear and keep land open for sharp-tailed grouse well into the 20th century.

“Every old farmer used to burn their land. Now, you just don’t see that any more,” Rusch noted. “Even when I started, there were more and bigger fires. Our ability to respond to fires so fast now and put them out has absolutely impacted sharp-tailed grouse.”

As more wildfires get snuffed sooner, and as the small farms of the early 1900s revert to recreational land, the forest is taking over. Most people who own land now — including many parcels that were once farmed — want trees, not grass, because most of them deer hunt, Berg noted.

Moreover, the DNR lacks staff and funding to light intentional fires that might help improve habitat even where the last remaining birds exist.

“Fewer people working means less work gets done, it’s that simple. We don’t have the people to do all the work any more,” Rusch said.

Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Berg said the sharp-tailed decline has sped up in recent years because habitat is not just shrinking but the remaining pockets of habitat are now far apart. That isolation is likely causing genetic issues with the birds that now aren’t mixing with new birds as often, or at all. Roy reported signs of that genetic isolation in a 2019 research paper published in the journal Conservation Genetics.

“We are at the point now where there are so few birds in some places, there’s an issue of genetic viability,’’ said Dave Pauley, president of the Minnesota Sharp-Tailed Grouse Society and a retired DNR wildlife manager who had more than 40 years on the job, many of them working with sharp-tailed grouse.

Pauley said the lack of fire has been devastating for the birds. In the 1980s Pauley began searching for leks across northern Pine, Kanabec and far southern Carlton County and managed to document 50 of them. He and other wildlife managers in the region used fires almost every year to clear habitat.

Now, those fires are rarely set, and only five of the 50 leks have any birds remaining.

“We’ve had a big problem with the inability to use fire to maintain sharp-tail habitat,” Pauley said, noting it’s often been too wet or too dry in recent years to conduct so-called prescribed burning. In other instances it’s been a lack of fire-experienced DNR staff available to conduct the burns or a reluctance to start intentional fires for fear they may spread and damage private property.

Not giving up

The Minnesota DNR, using state conservation funds and in cooperation with nonprofits like the Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society and Pheasants Forever, continue to work to protect and restore what habitat remains in the east-central zone. But maintaining those big areas of open ground isn’t easy or cheap.

In the past decade nearly $10 million has been funneled into acquiring, preserving, restoring and managing sharp-tailed habitat in the region. But so far the effort is not slowing the decline in any noticeable way.

In Automba Township in Carlton County, state funds were used to buy the 726-acres Firebird Wildlife Management Area north of Kettle River that opened to the public in 2019. Once a farm, the area is now open meadow and aimed at attracting and holding sharp-tailed grouse.

A sign marks the Firebird Wildlife Management Area in Carlton County. The Minnesota DNR and conservation groups hope to keep sharp-tailed grouse from vanishing from east-central Minnesota by keeping some land, including wildlife management areas, cleared of trees and tall brush. Sharp-tailed grouse need open areas of at least two square miles to thrive. 
Steve Kuchera / 2019 file / Duluth News Tribune
A sign marks the Firebird Wildlife Management Area in Carlton County. The Minnesota DNR and conservation groups hope to keep sharp-tailed grouse from vanishing from east-central Minnesota by keeping some land, including wildlife management areas, cleared of trees and tall brush. Sharp-tailed grouse need open areas of at least two square miles to thrive. Steve Kuchera / 2019 file / Duluth News Tribune

Whether the birds will thrive there, or anywhere else in the region, remains unknown. But Pauley said efforts to increase habitat will continue.

“We’re not giving up. The sharp-tail society and Pheasants Forever are going to keep working on habitat,’’ Pauley said. “I can’t answer whether it’s too late or not, or whether the birds can respond, but we’re going to keep trying.”

In addition to projects on public lands, Pheasants Forever has hired biologists to work with private landowners in the east-central zone in hopes more people will hold at least some of their property open for sharp-tailed grouse.

When fire can’t be used or approved, Pauley said efforts continue to mow or mulch brushy areas to keep the land open enough for the birds. It’s not as good as fire at clearing the land, but it may be the last tool available in many areas.

Roy said the DNR will continue to manage for sharp-tailed grouse wherever they exist and where possible, namely public lands with still active leks nearby.

But can the birds be saved in eastern Minnesota?

“It’s obviously very challenging,” Roy said. “It’s not guaranteed to be successful.”

Wisconsin season closed again

Wisconsin has canceled its sharp-tailed grouse season in 2021 for the third consecutive year after bird numbers continue to decline in most areas, including in Douglas County.

Efforts by public land managers — including the DNR, counties and U.S. Forest Service — to keep sand barrens open for grouse have helped some. But the loss of most private land habitat, open areas reverting to forest, continues unabated, said Greg Kessler, DNR wildlife manager stationed in Brule.

This year sharp-tailed grouse numbers declined again in Burnett and Douglas counties but actually went up some in Bayfield County where the U.S. Forest Service has conducted regular, intentional fires in the Moquah Barrens area, creating prime habitat.

A hen sharp-tailed grouse in the foreground watching as several males display for her attention on a lek, or spring mating grounds. In many areas of the Northland, those mating grounds have gone quiet, with no sharp-tails remaining.
Steve Kuchera / 2019 file / Duluth News Tribune
A hen sharp-tailed grouse in the foreground watching as several males display for her attention on a lek, or spring mating grounds. In many areas of the Northland, those mating grounds have gone quiet, with no sharp-tails remaining. Steve Kuchera / 2019 file / Duluth News Tribune

Still, across the northwestern counties that still hold nearly all of Wisconsin’s remnant sharptail population, only 103 males were counted this spring, down from more than 350 in 1998, half the 201 counted in 2009 and down 36% from 2019, the last year a survey was conducted.

Part of the decline may be the cyclical nature of sharp-tailed grouse populations, Kessler noted, as they follow roughly 10-year cycles much like ruffed grouse. But part of the decline is likely the ongoing demise of habitat.

“Our public lands are still holding some birds. But there’s been a steady decline on private lands where people just aren’t managing for habitat that sharp-tails can use any more,” Kessler said. “The issue becomes whether our public lands are enough, and close enough together, to keep a viable population going. That’s the million-dollar question.”

The sharp-tail story

Description: A large grouse, somewhat larger than the ruffed grouse, that lives in open grassy or brushland areas. Sharp-tailed grouse have a round body and short legs, short rounded wings and elongated central tail feathers which gave them the name “sharp-tail.”

Length: 15 and 20 inches.

Weight: 2-3 pounds.

Color: Mottled brown and gray. During spring the male's eyebrows are yellow and its air-inflated throat sacks are lavender.

Migration: Permanent resident, but they will fly many miles to find better habitat, especially recently burned areas.

Food: Grains, seeds, buds, foliage, fruit and insects, especially grasshoppers; variable depending on season and availability.

Nest: A sparsely lined depression on the ground, usually concealed with overhanging vegetation.

Habitat: Open grasslands, brushlands and bogs. Dancing grounds or leks are commonly found in more open areas while nests are generally located in relatively heavy cover, often under or near shrubs or small trees.

Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Likes: Big, open areas of 2 square miles or larger, especially if they have been burned recently.

Dislikes: Conifer trees — pines, spruces and balsams. They generally will not mate within a quarter mile of a tall conifer tree.

Sounds: A cackle while flying. During spring mating season, males will try to attract females by making coos and clucks, stomping their feet and clicking their tail feathers.

Predators: Great horned owls, goshawks, foxes, skunks and raccoons.

Lifestyle: The oldest wild grouse on record lived 7.5 years but most don’t make it that long. Predation, hunting and weather all affect survival. About half the chicks hatched each season perish, most within the first month, with chicks susceptible to cool, wet weather, predators and starvation. Winter mortality can range from 14% to 71%.

Sources: Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas; Audubon Society; Wisconsin DNR; Minnesota DNR.

Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society

The Minnesota Sharp-Tailed Grouse Society was founded in 1986 by Roche Lally of Duluth. The group is “dedicated to the management and restoration of sharp-tails in Minnesota for hunters and non-hunters.”

With around 300 members, the group has worked to raise money and take part in projects to restore habitat for the birds. The group has provided funding to DNR for prescribed burning equipment, printing of informational brochures, land acquisition and habitat management. The society builds and maintains observation blinds, publishes a quarterly newsletter and sponsors an annual habitat management project. The Minnesota group has helped spur the Wisconsin Sharp-Tailed Grouse Society, the Michigan Sharp-Tailed Grouse Association and Sharp-tails Plus of Manitoba.

For more information go to sharptails.org.