Sharp-tailed Grouse Translocation and Restoration Project

Moquah Barrens, Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, Washburn Ranger District, Wisconsin.

In an effort to restore and provide a genetic boost to the population of sharp-tailed grouse in the Moquah Barrens of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, 160 sharp-tailed grouse were translocated from NW Minnesota over a three-year period between 2016 and 2018.  Volunteers band a grouse in transport.This translocation effort, on-going monitoring, and landscape restoration are made possible by funding through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the USDA Lake Superior Landscape Restoration Partnership; with partners from the Wisconsin and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Bad River and Red Cliff Bands of Lake Superior Chippewa, Wisconsin and Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Societies, Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and numerous other volunteers.

Sharp-tailed grouse are native to Wisconsin and historically occupied a large portion of the state, using primarily, young, open pine and oak barrens or savanna ecosystems like the Moquah Barrens.  Additionally, sharp-tailed grouse will use other open lands such as grasslands, and agricultural fields. Aagask, Ojibwe for sharp-tailed grouse, are nicknamed the “firebird” since they are a species that relies on large scale disturbance events, like fire, to renew and maintain their habitat.  These disturbance events create the large open blocks of habitat they need to survive.  The Moquah Barrens Management Area of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest Washburn Ranger District is the most northern pine barrens within the Northwest Sands Ecological Corridor stretching from Bayfield County to Burnett County in northwestern Wisconsin.  Roughly one percent of the original 2.3 million acres of Wisconsin savanna and pine barrens communities remain today.  Management of the Moquah Barrens for sharp-tailed grouse has been ongoing since the early 1950’s with habitat management and restoration work, including prescribed fire, occurring at varying degrees and intensities since roughly that time as well.  In 2009, the Forest Service Northwest Sands Project began implementation with a direct focus on large-scale landscape restoration of the barrens and savanna ecosystems.  With nearly 23,000 acres of critical barrens habitat now being restored and maintained the situation was better than ever to begin looking at how best to help and protect one of the key barrens wildlife species, the sharp-tailed grouse.

Volunteer sets up one of the remote controlled traps on a lek.

Historically, within the Moquah Barrens, sharp-tailed grouse were found in nine locations (leks or dancing grounds) based on annual breeding season observations by the U.S. Forest Service and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.  However, in more recent years, sharp-tailed grouse have been experiencing statewide population declines, including those found at the Moquah Barrens.  In fact, over the last decade or more, only one Moquah Barrens dancing ground has been active, and in 2015, only 2-6 males and 1-2 females were known to occur at this one location.  Likely more birds existed on the Barrens, but due to the size of the area and personnel constraints, it is difficult to fully census a low density population.  The declining populations in northwest Wisconsin have been attributed to habitat loss and genetic isolation in key areas.

To supplement the remaining grouse population, in 2013, the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest began planning a project to translocate sharp-tailed grouse from northwestern Minnesota to the Moquah Barrens.  The Forest, in cooperation with its partners, implemented a plan to translocate approximately 150-200 sharp-tailed grouse over the course of 2-3 years.  As a critical component of a functioning and healthy barrens community, the Forest hopes to establish a genetically diverse self-sustaining population of grouse that are connected with other populations in the Lake Superior grasslands and nearby northwest sands habitats.  All translocation efforts followed recommendations established within the Wisconsin Sharp-tailed Grouse Management Plan, and provided by the Wisconsin Sharp-tailed Grouse Committee, Minnesota DNR, and through advisement with the Wisconsin and Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Societies and other partners.

Sharp-tailed grouse nest with 8 eggs.  Moquah Barrens, Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, WIAs previously stated, 160 sharp-tailed grouse have been moved to the Moquah Barrens since 2016.  In 2018 alone, 64 sharp-tailed grouse (33 male and 31 female) were released, in 2017 67 birds (45 male, 22 female), and 2016 29 birds (16 male, 13 female).  Of these birds, a small subset (35) have been fitted with radio transmitters to allow them to be tracked over a 1-2 year period to gain valuable insight into habitat use, nest location, and where they are disbursing to over time and between seasons.  Successful translocation projects take time.  Though 160 birds have been introduced to the Moquah Barrens over a three year period, a noticeable increase in the local population may not occur for an additional 3-5 years.  The current Moquah sharp-tailed population is difficult to estimate at this time. Indications are that most birds from all three translocation efforts have survived.  All birds received a unique combination of colored and numbered leg bands, and banded birds from all three release years have been observed in, around, and outside the Moquah Barrens and the National Forest.  Dispersal of birds from the original release site have ranged from as little as 0.25 miles to as much as over 24 miles, based on radio-telemetry observations.  Released birds have been found visiting active and historic dancing ground locations within the Moquah Barrens as well as on county and state managed lands, and private property.  These birds are already potentially having a positive impact on the greater Lake Superior population!

The Forest Service and project partners are actively monitoring habitat use and movement patterns along with assessing the progress of the translocated birds.  Monitoring occurs consistently through the year and is ongoing with road surveys, dancing ground surveys, telemetry tracking, winter tracking, and lek counts as part of the suite of methods used.  One of the most exciting results of telemetry tracking efforts has been discovering evidence of reproductive success.  In June of 2017 and 2018, multiple nest sites were found including the first documented sharp-tailed grouse nest within the Moquah Barrens since the 1980’s!

Minnesota-captured male sharp-tailed grouse released at the Moquah Barrens in the CNNF

Although the trapping and translocation phase of the project is complete there is still much work to do in regard to monitoring and continuing the ongoing habitat restoration.  With prescribed burning and mechanical treatments underway to continue expanding and improving barrens habitat, the sharp-tailed grouse at Moquah have a bright future.  This project is not only a success because 160 sharp-tailed grouse were translocated to the Moquah Barrens, but also because it brought together numerous individuals with a similar interest and passion for seeing sharp-tailed grouse again thrive in NW Wisconsin.  Individuals from within the Forest Service, other federal agencies, state and tribal agencies, non-profits, and members of the public worked together to see this project through and remain dedicated to see it continue into the next phase.  A shared wildlife technician between the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and the US Forest Service was hired over the last three years to contribute to the telemetry tracking efforts of all ‘collared’ birds during the spring and summer seasons.  Additionally, 2017 marked the first year that the Washburn Ranger District continued monitoring sharp-tailed grouse from spring through winter.  A telemetry technician was hired through an agreement between the US Forest Service and the Wisconsin Sharp-tailed Grouse Society to conduct telemetry, lek, and winter tracking surveys from October 1, 2017 to May 26, 2018. Monitoring of sharp-tailed grouse has now occurred on a continual basis for over 18 months and plans are to continue focused efforts through 2020.

: Minnesota-captured sharp-tailed grouse released at the Moquah Barrens. Credit: US Forest ServiceAnother area of focus in the coming years will be to have sharp-tailed grouse feathers processed for genetics.  Over the course of the project, feathers were collected from each translocated bird as well as opportunistically from locations in the Moquah Barrens when they are found at dancing grounds or other areas.  The intent is to use these genetic samples for analysis of gene flow, genetic relatedness and variation, stable isotopes, or phylogeny studies.  It is hoped that in the next 2-3 years sharp-tailed numbers will continue to increase and allow for a limited amount of trapping, banding, and radio-tagging to occur at Moquah to capture the influx of Minnesota genetics as well as continue to develop a better understanding of habitat use and seasonal movements.

Released male sharp-tailed grouse with fitted radio transmitter. Credit: US Forest ServiceDuring the entire three-year translocation effort, over 50 individuals, many contributing to two or more years, participated and provided an estimated combined total of more than 9,000 hours.  Without this assistance, the commitment of time and funding, and the dedication of everyone involved, supporting conservation efforts such as this, we never would have been as successful as we were.

The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest’s Sharp-tailed Grouse Restoration Project received the 2017 US Forest Service Eastern Region Northeastern Area Honor Award for Sustaining Forests and Grasslands.

Learn more about the Moquah Barrens Management Plan