Prolonged wintry conditions in the Upper Peninsula have forced the Michigan DNR to postpone a release of sharp-tailed grouse in the western part of the region, a place where they have not been seen reliably since the mid-1990s.
DNR wildlife biologists had planned to capture about 20 birds from the eastern U.P. and re-introduce them to Ontonagon County this spring. However, late winter snowfall and a persistent groundcover of snow, as deep as 3 feet in some places, have delayed the effort until next spring.
"We have been working diligently to get our team in place to capture and re-release these birds, but at this point, we are concerned about likely low survival and poor nesting success of birds relocated under these extreme conditions," said DNR Wildlife Division Chief Russ Mason. "We will continue to monitor and survey sharp-tailed grouse populations in the eastern U.P. in advance of completing our relocation effort next spring."
Sharp-tailed grouse are ground-oriented birds - about a third larger than a ruffed grouse - with long and pointed feathers in the center of their tails, which males point upward during mating displays, giving the bird its name.
Their heads are somewhat crested. Males have purple neck patches which they expose during courtship displays. Females are covered in barring of brown, white and black.
In Michigan, sharp-tailed grouse were first documented on Isle Royale in 1888. The birds were widespread across the U.P. after the logging era, when wildfires opened-up the landscape.
At one point, sharp-tailed grouse were numerous in the western U.P., where it is presumed they had expanded their population east from Wisconsin. However, as the habitat changed in succession over time from grasslands to forests, their numbers dropped.
"Sharp-tailed grouse are birds of fields and grasslands," said David Jentoft, a DNR wildlife biologist in Sault Ste. Marie. "They are best suited to areas with open land, like portions of the Chippewa and Mackinac counties in the eastern U.P., where a limited hunting season was re-established in 2010."
Currently, the highest sharp-tailed grouse population levels in the U.P. are found in Chippewa and Schoolcraft counties.
Michigan Natural Resources Commissioner J.R. Richardson of Ontonagon has been a strong proponent of reintroducing sharp-tailed grouse to the western U.P., with a hopeful eye on eventual hunting opportunities.
"In our continuing quest to develop activities to get the folks and kids out-of-doors, we asked the DNR staff to give us some options on sharp-tail in the western U.P.," Richardson said. "They came up with a plan to live trap and transport a few from our eastern neighbors with staff and partners. We are excited to watch this unfold and re-establish these birds on our end of the peninsula. It worked with turkeys, when the odds were against them with our snowfall and temperature ranges."
Michigan has the farthest east hunting season for sharp-tailed grouse in the nation.
How successful the re-introduction effort will be is unclear, given the habitat challenges and potential issues inherent to any wildlife re-introduction attempt.
Students from Michigan State University have built traps for the sharp-tailed grouse. Decoys have been acquired by the DNR to help attract the birds. Private landowners have helped by granting access to their properties.
Additional partners, including the Michigan Sharp-tailed Grouse Association and the Ruffed Grouse Society of Michigan, have also been involved in the effort.