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How Climate Change is Affecting Sharp-tailed Grouse
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.
Good article. Climate disruption is largely caused by humans and humans must reverse it. I love fossil fuels, but they are killing us and the wildlife we love. I love wildlife more than fossil fuels. Be a part of the solution, not the problem. Leave fossil fuels in the ground before we end up in the ground.
The debate is how much of it is AGW and how much is natural. The problem is that the left wants to use it to control everything in their favor, thus their refusal for legitimate debate. The same people having you buying into this are the same folks that want to grab guns. I’d rather die on a heated planet (man-made or otherwise) than be under the thumb of leftists such as A.O.C…
Do join a conservation group (like MN Sharptail Greose Society) and get involved to do what we can to provide our upland birds with optimal habitat. Irregardless of the specific challenges these birds face, improved habitat should surely help.
As to Global Warming, the notion that it is natural is to easy and convenient of an excuse. One can easily argue that global warming is ‘natural’ because we human beings deserve any and all wealth, luxury and convenience we can obtain from our planet. So if coal and oil are cheaper than alternative energy sources, who cares what damage these fossil fuels do to our environment.
Unfortunately one of the biggest challenges in combatting ‘global warming’ is that most of the individuals (politicians and voters) responsible for deciding if and how to address global warming DON’T REALLY CARE because they don’t believe that it is likely to severely impact them in their life time. Politicians are most interested in keeping their jobs and most voters don’t want to spend any more for energy than they have to. Heaven forbid if we were asked to pay for cleaning up and correcting the mess we’ve made.
When I was growing up in the 60’s and 70’s and attaining a degree in Environmental Science the prediction was that an new Ice Age was coming and that we would freeze to death. This was supported by the scientific community. It hasn’t happened. Please consider the wide range of temperature regimes in which Sharptail Grouse live currently. The survive in a large range of latitude and altitude. Many of these results are not based on data, but on speculation, (notice the words like “may”, “possible”, “predicted” in many articles about this issue. Also, many research projects have climate change in the Abstract and it it assumed as a phenomenon at the outset. I believe we have a habitat problem and yes, lack of habitat causes greater effects when other challenges like inclement weather, storms, etc. occur. But assumptions that climate change is a given takes our eye off searching for the main concern. Scientific research should try to disprove its hypothesis, not seek to prove it. If the proposed question can stand a rigorous attempt to disprove it, then it has merit. Seeking to prove something from the beginning is not good scientific practice. Currently it is suggested by data that we have a 1.5 degree temp increase in the past 100+ years. The Sharptails flourish in a much larger range of temperatures than that.1.5 degrees so it is doubtful that this is the cause for reduction in Sharptail numbers. Could the author give me references to all the articles he reviewed? It would be much appreciated.
Thanks for your comment Kirk. I definitely agree habitat is the primary concern for this species and many others. I also agree that sharptails occur across a broad range already and are capable of surviving some drastic seasonal swings. But without enough suitable habitat, effects from any stress would be more pronounced. There’s always uncertainty with predicting future impacts on species. The best science/management practices today might not hold up in the future, but I don’t think that means we should not act on it today either. All the studies referenced are linked in the article text above – hope that helps!
Ryan, I was intrigued by your article on climate change. Living here in Utah we get big swings in temps that leave wildlife reeling. But that isn’t the only reason why are bird numbers are done. New practices in farming, destruction of habitat due to housing or highway systems, seasonal rainfall or lack thereof all have an impact. Is there climate change? yes. Is it due to mankind? probably, but if you are serious about this then the remedies you presented really won’t cut it. The way farmers farm and people live would have to drastically change. I think it funny one post said that we should keep the oil in the ground, but I bet he drives a truck or SUV when he goes hunting, are you willing to give that up on the hope that sharptails “might” come back. I think most people are looking for solutions to habitat loss and want to contribute, but want to do it in a meaningful way that will actually do something. So far no one has come up with a common sense solution other than habitat reconstruction and trying repair lost habitat. Like the major wildlife groups that reclaim acres for wildlife. ?Which is great and I applaud them for their efforts. But if the earth is in as bad a shape as many say it is then it would mean more drastic measures need to be implemented. That could take away people’s rights to choose, and instead of helping wildlife now we would be made to. Climate change is real. We go through it every season that is why we have four of them. And sometimes the weather is to severe for wildlife reproduction and sometimes it isn’t. Or sometimes it’s good in one area and not in a another. Yessir, the climate is always changing.
Fellow Utahn here and I completely agree. Habitat destruction should be more of a concern than temperature swings. Farming practices have decimated grasslands much more than 1 acre well pads in my opinion. While it was rolled out by the Bush administration, the clean fuel policies pushing ethanol standards turned 5 million acres of grasslands set aside for conservation into corn fields under Obama.
One of the most significant habitat issues for grassland species like Sharp tailed Grouse is fire suppression. Grasslands are improved by periodic fire. Shrubs and trees are kept in check by frequent burning. This has had a greater impact than a 1.5 degree change in temp, If we focus on Climate change, which has happened in the past and will probably occur in the future, we take our eye off the real issue, habitat reduction.
I live in Northern Minnesota. When I was a kid we had 3 flocks of Sharp tails right in town. Each spring they burned grass around town. When they quit burning and the grass grew tall it wasn`t long and the birds were gone they need short grass at nesting time. Fire is their best friend.
Habitat destruction does more harm to wildlife than a theory that has been batted around for decades and has yet to be proven. Habitat destruction is real. I have never seen the proponents of “climate change” also demand less development of wildlife habitat. Climate change is a theory that has been weaponized by the left in an effort to control people and is therefore a dangerous agenda to human rights and freedom; not to wildlife.