Friday, November 5, 2010

Birdline on Monday--a question about Saskatchewan's Provincial Bird, the Sharp-tailed Grouse

This amazing photo of a Sharp-tailed Grouse in dancing form courtesy of John Carlson, friend and a great defender of grassland birds. Here is his always beautiful blog, Prairie Ice.

I'll be on Birdline our (now) bi-monthly phone-in radio show about birds, beginning at 12:30 p.m. next Monday (Nov. 8). During the show, I will be asking listeners to call in and answer two questions: 1. Are they seeing many Sharp-tailed Grouse (or "prairie chickens") in their region and 2. Do they agree that it may be time to close the hunting season for this species.

This morning, Fred Clemence, a retired farmer who has been paying attention to birds for many years in Saskatchewan's parkland eco-region, called to express his concerns over the Sharp-tailed Grouse. "I've been trying to find someone in the provincial government who will take me seriously, but no one will listen."

Fred believes that it may be time to close the Sharp-tailed Grouse season and give the birds a chance to build up their numbers. The best data available shows an unquestionable and statistically significant decline. The Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) run by the U.S. Geological Survey's Patuxent Wildlife Centre and the Canadian Wildlife Service, shows that in Saskatchewan the Sharp-tailed Grouse is declining by 7.2% per year. In Aspen parkland the annual decline is 11.3%!!

Hunters and the hunter-biologists working for Saskatchewan Fish and Wildlife are fond of studies that supposedly demonstrate that hunting has little effect on a species like the Sharp-tail, even when it is in steep decline as it has been in recent decades.

I'm not convinced that is entireley true, but even if it were true, why not give our prairie upland game all a bit of a break anyway and let them increase and expand outward from zones where they are reasonably plentiful? Even if there is no guarantee that would happen from a moratorium on hunting, it would at least be a sign of good faith that the agency responsible for managing these species is concerned about their decline and looking for ways to help them recover. What else is Saskatchewan Environment doing to reverse this death spiral? What have we got to lose if we close the season for a few years?

As Fred said in his phone call, sharp-tailed Grouse dancing grounds are getting very empty in the parkland where they once were common. There definitely has been some habitat loss, but not commensurate with the decline in Sharp-tails and Grey (or "Hungarian") partridge. Something else is emptying the dancing grounds and habitat, but no one seems to be trying to find out what that is. As long as there are still decent numbers of Sharp-tails in the large pastures near the U.S border where hunters can have a good day of shooting, our Fish and Wildlife officials seem to be happy.

Instead, we should be looking to secure more habitat and perhaps allowing the few birds remaining in the south to flourish in hopes that their much-retracted zones of healthy population might actually expand back to the north.

If you have some thoughts on this, please phone in to Birdline on Monday and share them with our listeners.


  1. Trevor, after traveling to the Kennedy, Saskatchewan East since 1973, with good pointing dogs well trained, my comment is since the advent of chemical control(burnoff) used in zero till ,the Huns and Sharptail population loss due to this chemical mgmnt. Is truly a crisis. If one chooses to place his pointers on old summer fallow ground the birds are there, in zero till with the same cover, they are not, with no insects for young bird lets look at this possibility for this tragic loss of magnificant species..due to land practices...

  2. Thanks Steve--very interesting. I have long suspected that chem fallow and no till is not the conservation saviour that is is made out to be, but no one is checking to see if the emperor is naked. Certainly the chemical companies and ag agencies are not going to sponsor a study to see what is happening to upland game on these heavily sprayed landscapes, which despite the soil and carbon sequestration benefits, are becoming ecological deserts.

  3. Trevor,
    Repectfully if you advocate closing of the seasons on Sharp Tail, the Sask. Provincial Bird, you will lose the knowledgable advocacy for changing the chem fallow open policys in the province...something to consider.
    Sportsman spend millions of dollars per year hunting in the Province...and care about the birds.....

  4. That is a point always worth considering, Steve. I shot my last two sharp-tails in 1999. After that I just decided the population levels are too low in my part of the province to justify hunting them any more. Hunters of course purchase a lot of habitat through the wildlife federation for example. But we need them to step up to that advocacy position you mention. Are they speaking out to protect Crown land for Sharp-tailed grouse and other birds? I have not heard them say much lately on the federal community pastures, which contain some of the best sharp-tailed habitat anywhere. So it is great to hear that you are raising the concern, and I hope you will do it through the wildlife federation too.

  5. Trevor,
    If only it was about hunting or harvest versus nonharvest.
    The dilema for many species is not about predation, human or otherwise...broad based recorded research cronicles degration of wildlife directly do to land and water practices..if we overlook that we will simply record the loss of species and create micro postage
    stamps of habitat as havens for once was.
    It will make little differe n ce when we shoot our last bird if we dont address the mega reasons for the
    widespread loss of sharptail populations..I sincerely hope excellent writers and naturalists like you will declare the urgent need for objective research to find whats causing the decimation of this wonderful prairie species...sportsman will step forward if they are not targeted as they do and did for waterfowl via ducks unlimited in Saskatchewan.
    I wish you safe travel in your important matter what the agri-business interests concerns maybe...

  6. Well said, Steve. The big reasons for bird decline must be addressed; any change in limits would only be a gesture and not a serious attempt to get at the real problems.

    thanks for the discussion.

  7. Trevor, I note, as of this morning ,tthat the USDA has allocated funds to supposedly increase the numbers of honey bees in the US.
    One might wonder about the bee populations on the Sask. Prairies..
    in that agribusiness hasnt found an efficient low cost way to pollinate crops in your neck of the woods.
    It has been determined here that insecticides are decimating bee population south of the border.
    Perhaps the vectors impacting bees and sharptail grouse and other birds...songbird species actually cross or converg, and if so a much broader case can be made for immediate action for these species.

  8. Very interesting Steve. I will have a look at that. As you know ag pesticides are considered a possible/likely cause, and here in Canada research is showing that neonicotonoids are hurting insectivorous birds in ag landscapes. We are in fact talking about it this week in Saskatchewan conservation circles, proposing a committee come together to address the issue and urge governments to act.


  9. Trevor,
    I note the comments of Community Pastures Ranchers and the apparent loss of the Sage Grouse noted in regards of the EO. Who is doing the bird inventories on the species and what oversight has the Feds used on the Pasture grazing operations?
    I ask these questions to try to understand the need for joint efforts for management stewardship of not only pastures but the Sask. Farming lands.
    For instance, if it is known that the insecticide used now is toxic impact on birds requiring insect protein has any effort been made to identify chemicals and practices that facilitate extractive farming yet allow the insect needing birds to flourish.
    I also note that the bankrupcy rate of large acreage zero till operations is mushrooming and the organic farmers have had major successes in restoring their ecologys .

    My point is, it appears that there is lots of opportunity for forming stakeholder commitment for change without adversarial actions
    once the farming stakeholders (including the Community Pasture Ranchers)...

  10. Hi Steve--that is our primary concern. With the PFRA pastures we knew that at least some lands south of the forest were being managed with conservation and biodiversity as part of their long term planning and objectives. Without government or NGO involvement in the way these lands are managed there will no longer be anyone monitoring bird populations etc. If we do it for our forests why not for our public grasslands?

  11. Trevor,
    With upmost respect, the reason that there is little monitoring and management of precious prairie birds in open landscapes may well be because there is no wide stewardship
    activism outside of the Conservation Sphere....Such activism would peak the attention of Fed. AND Provincial politicians.
    For instance who is leading the stewardship initiatives to provide alternate management practices for extractive farming so the bankrupcy rate declines due to the cost of chemical usuage....also who is leading the stewardship show casing of the magical restoration of prairie landscapes through intelligent organic farming stewardship...
    Who or what efforts are being carried out to do stewardship visioning which specifically addresses the destruction of organics in prairie soils due to zero till.....and shows the way for the management methods to restore and enhance prairie bird populations while also enhancing farming practices that dont lead to bankrupcy of the families...
    You writings bring a clarion call for alarm and a respect for prairie and it creatures....but awareness needs to highlight the integration of stewardship practice and policies
    that truly ensure the prairie ecology as an organismic management success.
    Steve Dunn

  12. Thanks for the thoughts, Steve. I agree.

  13. Trevor would you be interested in copresenting the case for visioning
    to the Wildlife Federation, and the many Sharptail Preservation Advocation Societies in Canada and the US.
    The case would be fully reviewed by you and presented to,by us, to Ag.
    Interests including the organic farming groups, the Community Pasture Association and Selected
    Individual ranchers...we would maintain our indepedence so as to avoid stakeholder politics..
    Steve Dunn

  14. That sounds interesting Steve but I am not sure exactly what you mean. We should talk on the phone: email me at to arrange a time to talk


Share this post

Get widget