Effectiveness of Sharp-tailed Grouse Transplants in the Tobacco Valley, Montana

Scientific Disciplines
Biological Sciences - Terrestrial
wildlife management
sharp-tailed grouse
Population augmentation
sharptailed grouse
tobacco valley
tobacco valley montana
wildlife parks
montana fish wildlife
fish wildlife parks
sharptailed grouse tympanuchus phasianellus
Columbian sharp-tailed grouse
Tympanuchus phasianellus columbianus
Volume 18, No. 1-4

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 
Study area
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 
topographical features. 
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 
was sagebrush.
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 
Transplant Techniques
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.
Radio Marked 
   Male   female 


47% for 1 year

after transplants

7M 5F 
Lake, B.C. 
for several 
1991 3 0  3 

2M 4F 
0% after 30 days

4M 5F 

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

Lek Surveys
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 
Literature cited
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 
University of Montana, Missoula. 42 pp.
observed in 1998 and one in 1999 (D. Lewis 
Connelly, J.W., M.W. Gratson, and K.P. 
Young personal observation).
Reese. 1998. Sharp-tailed Grouse 
(Tympanuchus phasianellus). In A. 
Poole and F. Gill, eds. The Birds of 
These data suggest that the two series of 
North America. No. 354. The Birds 
transplants may have maintained sharp-tails 
of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, 
Pennsylvania. 20 pp.
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