Effectiveness of sharp-tailed grouse
Transplants in the tobacco valley, Montana
D. Lewis Young, U.S. Forest Service (Retired), 68 Garrison Drive, Eureka, MT 59917
Alan K. Wood, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, 490 North Meridian Road, Kalispell, MT 59901
Records extending back to 1861 document the presence of sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus
phasianellus) in the Tobacco Valley of northwestern Montana. However, following a similar trend
throughout the species’ range, populations of sharp-tailed grouse in the Tobacco Valley declined
sharply until only three males were observed on one lek by 1987. Seven years of transplanting
birds (1987 to1997) increased the numbers of individuals on one lek and led to the establishment
of a second lek that persisted for three years. After each of the transplant periods ended, the
number of males counted at leks gradually declined until the last lek activity was recorded in
2000. Sharp-tailed grouse in the Tobacco Valley likely were extirpated by 2003.
Key Words: Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, Tympanuchus phasianellus columbianus,
Tobacco Valley Montana, population augmentation, extirpation.
of the sharp-tailed grouse in Montana (Lord
In Montana, the Columbian subspecies
Subsequent reports of sharp-tailed
of sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus
grouse continued to document the species
phasianellus columbianus) occurs west
presence in western Montana. Siloway
of the Continental Divide (Connally et al.
(1901) reported that sharp-tailed grouse
1998). This subspecies has experienced a
occupied grasslands west of the Continental
90% decline in historically occupied habitat
Divide in Montana. Saunders (1921:58)
(Miller and Graul 1980, U.S. Fish and
stated that sharp-tails were a “fairly common
Wildlife Service 2000), and was identified
permanent resident of the mountain valleys,
as a highest priority species in need of
formerly very common but becoming rarer
management in Montana’s Comprehensive
each year.” However, by 1969, sharp-
Fish and Wildlife Conservation Strategy
tails were confined to small areas in the
(Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks 2005).
Kootenai, Flathead, and Blackfoot river
The first written record of sharp-
valleys (Hand 1969). The last reported
tailed grouse in the Tobacco Valley in
sighting on the Flathead Indian Reservation
northwestern Montana appeared in the
was in the late 1970s (Brett Gullet, personal
journals of members of the British Boundary
communication) until May 2008 when
Commission charged with surveying the
Dwight Bergeron of Montana Fish, Wildlife
49th parallel after it was established as the
& Parks observed a single bird in the Camas
boundary between Canada and the United
Prairie Basin (Dwight Bergeron, personal
States. John Keast Lord, Assistant Naturalist
communication). The last documented
and Veterinary Surgeon for the British
sighting in the Flathead Valley was made
Boundary Commission in 1861, reported
during an Audubon Christmas Bird Count in
the sharp-tailed grouse to be “particularly
1980 (Leo Keane, personal communication).
abundant on the tobacco plains near the
In the Blackfoot Valley, a total of 14-16
Kootanie River” near present day Eureka
birds were documented on two leks in the
(Thompson 1985). In 1866 Lord authored
mid-1990’s (Deeble 1996), but by April
a book that contained perhaps the first
1999, only five males were observed on
detailed, accurate description of leks and the
the two leks (D. Lewis Young, personal
spring mating rituals as well as illustrations
The first recorded lek survey was
In the Tobacco Valley of northwestern
conducted in 1960 by the Montana Fish and
Montana, declining lek counts in the
Game Department, now called Montana
1970s and 1980s led to efforts to sustain
Fish, Wildlife & Parks (Manley and Wood
or increase the Tobacco Valley population
1990). Then from 1966-1974, Montana Fish
through transplants. This decision was
and Game conducted irregular surveys on
based on observations that most attempts
the leks in Sections 11 and 26. From 1976-
to reestablish extirpated populations failed
1980, professor Chuck Jonkel and students
(Toepfer et al. 1990). The purpose of this
from the University of Montana conducted
paper is to summarize those transplant
surveys in the valley. From 1979 until
efforts and evaluate their effectiveness.
present, the lek surveys have been conducted
by a combination of people and agencies
and organizations including Montana Fish,
The Tobacco Valley is located in
Wildlife & Parks, Montana Natural Heritage
northwestern Montana near the town of
Program, The Nature Conservancy, Kootenai
Eureka (48.945o North, -115.076o East,
National Forest, and private individuals. The
Figure 1). The Kootenai River drains the
senior author has counted the leks annually
valley which is surrounded by the Salish
beginning in 1987.
Mountains to the west and south and the
Figure 1. Location of the Tobacco Valley in Northwestern
Montana along with three different areas used as the source
of transplanted sharp-tailed grouse; Sand Creek Wildlife
Management Area, ID, Clinton, BC, and Douglas Lake, BC.
32 Young and Wood
Galton Range and Whitefish Range to the
Bown (1980) reported six leks in the
east. Vegetation in the valley floor was
Tobacco Valley prior to the initiation of this
historically dominated by bunchgrass
transplant effort. However, only five of those
communities resulting from limited
six locations were mapped, and historic
precipitation caused by a rain shadow
lek count data were available from only
effect from the surrounding mountains and
three of the mapped locations. Another lek
recurring fires from both lightning starts
was discovered in 1991 bringing the total
and cultural use by the native Ktunaxa
number of leks with data to four (Figure 2).
First Nation people. Average annual
precipitation in the valley is 37 cm. Low
temperatures in January average -9.1oC and
high temperatures peak in July at 29.4oC
Source Of transplanted Birds
(Western Regional Climate Center 2011).
Two areas in British Columbia, Canada,
The geography of the valley is dominated
and one in Idaho (Figure 1) were the sources
by drumlins and kettles formed by glacial
for transplanted sharp-tailed grouse. All
action (Coffin et al. 1971).
birds transplanted to the Tobacco Valley
Figure 2. Documented lek locations in the Tobacco Valley, Montana
Effectiveness of Sharp-tailed Grouse Transplants in the Tobacco Valley, Montana 33
were Columbian sharp-tails from three areas
depending on the size of the lek and the
of distinctly different habitat types. From
1987-1991, 64 transplanted birds (50 males,
A total of 139 birds (Table 1) were
14 females) came from Douglas Lake, B.
captured in the spring then transported to
C., Canada (Figure 1). Douglas Lake is
the Tobacco Valley and released on the
primarily an area of rolling grasslands with
Section 26 lek. The first two years, 1987
habitat very similar to the floor and foothills
and 1988, all captured birds were flown
of the Tobacco Valley.
in small aircraft directly to the Eureka
In 1991, two males and four females
airport. In 1989, the first group of captured
were transplanted from the Sand Creek
birds were flown directly to Eureka and
Wildlife Management Area in southeast
the second group was flown to an airstrip
Idaho (Figure 1) where the dominate habitat
near Elko, B.C., about 32 km north of the
international border, then transferred to
In 1996-1997, 52 males and 17 females
vehicles for the trip into the U.S. Beginning
were transplanted from near Clinton, B.C.,
in 1990, all captured birds were transported
Canada, (Figure 1) where the habitat was
on the ground in vehicles (a total of 780
recently-clearcut lodgepole pine forests with
km from Douglas Lake and 825 km from
interspersed wet meadows. The clearcuts
Clinton to the Tobacco Valley release site).
were very large, measuring tens or hundreds
Multiple trips were made as needed to
of square kilometers for individual cutting
insure that transplanted birds were released
less than two days after capture. Captured
birds were placed individually in one of
four compartments in divided cardboard
Initially drop nets were deployed over
boxes with adequate ventilation. Water was
the lek to capture grouse to be transplanted.
initially provided to birds during transport,
Although drop nets proved very successful,
but was later discontinued because there was
they also required considerable equipment
no evidence that any birds consumed any
and time to set up. Subsequent trapping
water during transport. Only one mortality
efforts involved walk-in traps deployed
occurred during transport during the seven
in either the wing trap or circle trap
years of transplants.
configuration (Toepfer et al. 1988),
Table 1. Numbers, dates, and sources of sharp-tailed grouse released on the Section 26 lek,
Tobacco Valley, Montana, 1987-1997.
47% for 1 year
1991 3 0 3
0% after 30 days
10.5% and 6% for 1 year
Clinton, B.C after transplants
34 Young and Wood
Before release all birds were leg
To provide an auditory signal to newly
banded with numbered plastic leg bands
released birds that the release site was an
that were also colored coded by sex and
active lek, a continuous loop recording of
year. Forty birds received radios in order to
sharp-tail vocalizations was played on a
monitor their locations and survival after
battery-powered stereo system with external
release. The radio transmitters were made
weather-proof speakers. A timer was set
by Holohil Systems Ltd, Ontario, Canada,
to play the recording for approximately
weighed approximately 11 grams, and were
1.5 hours beginning just before daylight in
a necklace style attached by an elasticized
the morning and again for approximately
small-diameter cord around the neck. Birds
one hour just before dark in the evening.
were then placed in custom built release
The recorded sharp-tail vocalizations were
boxes. Each box had six compartments and a
played from the time of the first transplant
sliding door that covered all compartments.
of the season until the end of the normal lek
Each compartment measured 20x20x33 cm
attendance even if there were males attending
and had several holes for ventilation. A string
the lek and displaying. In 1996, only one male
was attached to the sliding door and led to a
appeared on the lek in early spring and he
tent 5-10 m away that was used as a blind.
had disappeared before the transplants began,
The string was slowly pulled to open one
so eight silhouette sharp-tail decoys were
compartment at a time (Figure 3).
deployed in an attempt to add a visual signal
Evening was the preferred time to
to the newly transplanted birds.
release birds because newly released birds
After each transplant, multiple visits
would not have time to move very far before
were made to the lek to observe and record
dark, thus giving them more time to settle
numbers of birds at the lek. Attempts were
down after the transport and release. All
made to observe leg band colors, but color
but three releases were done in the evening
was often difficult to determine for many of
between sundown and dark. Birds were
the birds due to the height of grass on the
placed in the release boxes near the lek less
lek. When radio-marked birds were present,
than one hour before sundown. If possible,
a Telonics receiver and hand-held H-antenna
releases were made after local birds appeared
were used to obtain locations and confirm
on the lek. Birds were released one at a time
the identity of each bird.
so that each bird’s actions could be observed.
Figure 3. Release box and arrangement with tent blind on the Section 26 lek.
Effectiveness of Sharp-tailed Grouse Transplants in the Tobacco Valley, Montana 35
last observation of two males observed in
Leks were surveyed an unknown
spring 2000 (Figure 4). Numbers of birds
number of times per year from 1960-1986.
on the Section 26 lek increased after both
During that period, except 1979-1980,
the 1987-1991 and 1996-1997 transplants.
observers would typically make a brief
A new lek was also documented in Section
observation of the lek noting the number
14, five years after the initial 1987 transplant
of birds observed, and then would flush
and about 2.5 km north of the Section 26
birds to make a more accurate count. If
lek (Figure 2). Not only did the transplanted
females were present they were included
birds attend the leks the same year of
in the total count of flushed birds. The lek
transplant, many survived one or more years
count recorded for each year was the highest
and continued to attend the leks. After the
number of birds seen on the lek at one time
first two years of transplants, the number of
(males and females combined). During
males on the Section 26 lek increased from
1979-1980 and 1987-2010, the reported lek
three to 8-10 and maintained that level for
count for each year was the highest number
six years, including three years after the first
of males seen at one time based on multiple
series of transplants ceased in 1991. During
visits (approximately 5-15). In those years
that same time period, the new Section 14
that transplants took place, the reported
lek was active with a peak of 12 males in
lek counts are the highest number of males
1991, the year it was discovered.
observed on the leks before transplants took
Use of the Section 14 lek began
place. Numbers of individuals observed on a
decreasing in 1992, one year after the first
lek after a transplant was often considerably
series of transplants stopped, and this lek
higher than before a transplant.
was unoccupied three years post-transplant.
Observations of some marked birds on
Results and discussion
the Section 14 lek, which were originally
The number of individuals on leks
released on the Section 26 lek, suggested
increased from an initial count of 14 birds in
that the Section 14 lek was indeed a new
1960 to a peak of 54 total birds on all leks
site that may have been established by
in 1971, and subsequently decreased to the
surplus birds resulting from the first series
Figure 4. Counts of sharp-tailed grouse observed on four leks in the
Tobacco Valley, Montana, 1960-2000. Surveys were conducted but no
birds have been observed since 2000.
36 Young and Wood
of transplants. The fact that the number
in the Tobacco Valley for about 12-13 years
of birds at the Section 26 lek remained
longer than had no transplants occurred.
relatively stable while the Section 14 lek
It is likely that, with only three males on
was declining, then attendance at the Section
the Section 26 lek in 1987, it would have
26 lek continued to decline at about the
disappeared by 1988 or 1989. Sharp-tailed
same pace until the next series of transplants
grouse populations seemed to respond
caused another temporary increase in lek
favorably following each transplant, but
use also suggests that the Section 14 lek was
after each of the transplant periods ended,
established as a result of new birds being
the lek numbers gradually declined until
added to the valley and either moving to a
the last lek activity was recorded in 2000.
new lek or displacing some resident birds to
Some sharp-tails may have persisted in
create a new lek.
the Tobacco Valley, but the population
The second series of transplants (1996-
was likely extirpated by 2003 since no
1997) resulted in a trend similar to that on
sharp-tailed grouse sightings have been
the leks in Sections 14 and 26 in the first
confirmed in the valley from 2003 through
series of transplants, but the increase of
2012. Many factors may have influenced
males on the lek was smaller with the birds
sharp-tail habitat and populations in the
Tobacco Valley (Manley and Wood 1990);
from Clinton, B.C. After the last transplant
but ultimately, efforts to sustain the species
in 1997, the numbers peaked in 1998, then
by supplementing the population through
began to decline. The last lek activity in the
transplants were unable to overcome
Tobacco Valley was recorded in 2000 (two
whatever factors ultimately led to the
males). Note that the transplanted birds in
extirpation of this population.
1996-1997 came from clear-cut lodgepole
pine habitat and not grasslands like those
from the 1987-1991 transplants. This habitat
difference may help explain the poorer
The authors thank the many people who
response observed in the second series of
have contributed their efforts and knowledge
to the conservation and management of
Differential rates of survival were
sharp-tailed grouse in the Tobacco Valley
observed based on the source of birds (Table
and contributed in various ways to this paper
1). Transplanted birds from Douglas Lake
including: T.Thier, M. Wood, D. Genter,
experienced 47% survival one year after
B. Hall, T. Manley, D. Jury, J. Williams, H.
transplant for several of the transplanted
Nyberg, D. Bergeron, J. Roberts, R. Kerr,
cohorts (Cope 1992). All six birds from
J. Marks, V. Saab, A. Dueker, L. Young,
R. Komac, M. Cope, B. Eng, L. Howke, J.
southeast Idaho were radio-marked and none
Cross, G. Heinz, C. Ferruzzi, M. Pearson,
survived longer than 30 days (D. Lewis
and L. Johnson.
Young personal observation). Survival of
birds from Clinton, B.C. was much lower
than the Douglas Lake, B.C. birds. Of the 19
males released in 1996, a maximum of two
Bown, R. R. 1980. The status of Columbian
(10.5%) were observed on the lek in 1997
sharp-tailed grouse on the Tobacco
and none in 1998. Of the 33 males released
Plains, Eureka, Montana. Senior thesis.
in 1997 a maximum of two (6%) were
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Effectiveness of Sharp-tailed Grouse Transplants in the Tobacco Valley, Montana 37
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Received March 26, 2012
Accepted September 6, 2012
38 Young and Wood