A look into the factual science of sharp-tailed grouse and their future
I grew up in Minnesota, from strong Scandinavian heritage, in a Lutheran church setting. I’m about as “Minnesota Nice” as you can get. And that really makes it difficult for me to make waves in social situations. Never bring up politics or religion in a group of people, right?
Well, I’ll add this one to the mix too: climate change. It can be an extremely polarizing subject these days. But for those of us who care about the conservation of habitats and wild animals, does there need to be a division? When it comes to protecting upland game birds, for example, there’s a mutual interest no matter which political party you belong to or what your views are.
With that said, I had to just boldly ask the question: How is climate change affecting sharp-tailed grouse? I reviewed several studies from prominent sharp-tailed grouse researchers and agency reports to get a clearer picture of this very real issue. I encourage you to keep an open mind and read through the whole article below before making any preliminary judgments. One thing we can all agree on is that we want the sharp-tailed grouse to remain a part of our landscape.
Industry shockwaves: Even big oil agrees climate change is real
Let’s start with this thought-provoking observation. Several major oil and gas companies were sued last year by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland, and the federal hearing focused heavily on a climate change report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2013. Theodore Boutrous, an attorney representing Chevron, addressed the topic. Boutrous stated, “Chevron accepts what the IPCC has reached consensus on concerning science and climate change . . . It’s a global issue that requires global action.” He went on to say, “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”
Coming from a representative of one of the biggest oil and gas companies in the world, this is a bombshell statement. These companies have some major skin in the game and have historically been critical of the idea. Now, you may or may not agree that climate change is a result of “human influence,” but for Big Oil to publicly agree with the IPCC that climate change is real is a big deal.
Impacts of climate change on sharp-tailed grouse
Now let’s look at the sharp-tailed grouse and its basic biology. The males are known for their stutter step dance, rattling tail, and bubbly calls as they perform courtship displays on dancing grounds called leks. (Watch “Sacred Lek“) Each male defends its own territory within the lek site, and females usually nest within 1 kilometer (0.6 mile) of that site, choosing tall grasses and shrubs to hide her nest. Generally, they stick close to their lek sites and some leks can persist for decades.
A study in the Sandhills region of western Nebraska (Raynor et al. 2018) revealed that sharp-tailed grouse often choose nest sites based on temperature. Even within grasslands, there are small changes in the environment (called microhabitats) that allow hens to find a desired condition. The researchers observed that sharp-tailed grouse (and many other gallinaceous birds) experience heat stress at or above 88 degrees Fahrenheit, which is why they choose cooler microhabitats for their nest sites. If temperatures continue to warm, as predicted in the IPCC report, this would reduce the available microhabitats for the grouse. Because sharp-tailed grouse tend to be homebodies and stay close to traditional lek sites, it is unlikely that climate change would force individuals to migrate northward to cooler climates. However, it could cause additional stress on the population, decreasing survival and nest success in southern areas. Over time, this would effectively cause their range to shift north.
I also caught up with Brandon Burda, a Masters student at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, who presented some of his initial research on sharp-tailed grouse in 2018. His research crew studied 112 leks and observed about 1,800 sharp-tailed grouse. His initial observations seem to support the idea above. While climate change will probably affect nesting habitat for hens (due to higher overall temperatures), it is more likely to affect chick survival than adult survival rates. The first 2 weeks after hatching, chicks would be very susceptible to hotter temperatures (overheating) or extreme precipitation events (too cool). Ultimately, there would be fewer chicks making it to adulthood to participate in breeding activities (called recruitment). Several other studies also observed that exposure to inclement weather was one of the most common causes of death for chicks within the first 2 weeks after hatching (Hannon and Martin 2006; Goddard and Dawson 2009).
In Washington state, where sharp-tailed grouse are already isolated, in decline, and given special status, a report from 2010 assessed the potential effects of climate change. The analysis indicated it is likely that climate change effects – such as “severe weather events, higher temperatures, drier summer soil conditions, and wetter winter seasons” – could add to the already present stresses on the grouse (e.g., grazing, loss of habitat due to development or infrastructure, etc.). A report from Wisconsin in 2011 agrees with this assessment, indicating that climate change is likely to add to the existing effects, such as habitat loss and fragmentation.
Habitat is as important as ever to sharp-tailed grouse
Researchers are still consistently pointing to the importance of habitat as a key component in how climate change could affect the sharp-tailed grouse. For example, a Montana report from 2017 states that an increase in fire frequencies (a potential climate change effect) could reduce conifer tree invasion in grassland or sagebrush-steppe habitats, which may increase suitable habitat. Ultimately, the report concluded that climate change effects (i.e., higher temperatures, changes in precipitation, and increased carbon dioxide levels) are complex and it would be difficult to predict impacts to habitat and the future of sharp-tailed grouse in Montana.
Flanders-Wanner et al. (2004) observed that weather and vegetation both affect prairie grouse production. However, ample vegetative cover (e.g., shrubs, grasses, etc.) drastically reduces the intensity of solar radiation. Therefore, if a grouse could nest beneath a heavy canopy of vegetation, it is likely they could still find enough microhabitats to reduce heat stress from climate change.
Ways to get involved in the future of sharp-tailed grouse
We’ve already impacted the population of sharp-tailed grouse and shifted their range north because of habitat loss. Making the stress of climate change even more impending.
As a biologist, I will say climate change is a real threat to the future of sharp-tailed grouse. The exact magnitude and speed of those effects are very hard to predict. But given the biology of the birds and the expected environmental changes, they will be affected somehow.
If you can stomach that statement and care about the conservation of the species, it’s not all doom and gloom. Here are a few ways you could help to slow or prevent these potential impacts.
- First, you could volunteer for wildlife agencies or university research efforts targeting sharp-tailed grouse. To use Brandon Burda (mentioned above) as an example, he found many leks for his study because of citizens reporting them. In some cases, you may even be able to help band them or relocate them, like the U.S. Forest Service did in Minnesota/Wisconsin in 2015.
- Do your part to protect or restore native grasslands or open shrublands. If you’re a landowner, consider planting native grasses, flowers, and shrubs in large openings to provide habitat, which will help many species besides sharp-tailed grouse as well. If you’re not a landowner, you may be able to help with management activities on public lands.
- Check out non-profit organizations that seek to restore and create sharp-tailed habitat throughout North America. Volunteer, join, and donate to help curb the increasing threat of climate change.
No matter where you stand on the climate change issue, keeping the sharp-tailed grouse around in perpetuity should be our goal. As hunters and conservationists with a deep love for the land and animals, I believe we can unite around that one focus, don’t you?
Ryan Lisson is a biologist and regular content contributor to several outdoor manufacturers, hunting shows, publications, and blogs. He is an avid small game, turkey, and whitetail hunter from northern Minnesota and loves managing habitat almost as much as hunting. Ryan is also passionate about helping other adults experience the outdoors for their first time, which spurred him to launch Zero to Hunt, a website devoted to mentoring new hunters.