You Little Turkey
His tail feathers were spread as high and wide as he could reach. Imagine your dad bent double right after he has stubbed his toe.
He had set his wings stretched and flexed and the colors of his head and neck were ruffed to take advantage of their brilliant hues. In all levels of aggression and attitude he mimicked the largest Merriam’s gobbler, yet the little sharptail grouse was nearly lost on his strutting grounds. The grass was higher than normal from a lack of grazing the previous fall and he wasn’t getting the type of attention he normally could have attracted.
It is spring turkey season, but the sharptail success story for western South Dakota is one worth telling.
Grouse populations in differing parts of the nation are struggling for many different reasons. In some, the level of forestation has increased to the point that their particular species no longer fits in that niche. Sharptail require open spaces. Fire suppression has led to dramatic declines in their numbers while helping birds that prefer a protective forest canopy such as the ruffed grouse that can be found in the Black Hills.
Studies conducted in Wyoming by university researchers looked at sage grouse populations at 700 sites. Late season grazing by cattle actually increased populations. Overgrazing is never beneficial, but appropriate levels seemed to actually improve certain types of cover and stimulate the growth of wild grains and plants that grouse eat.
Declines in trapping and increases in hawk, owl, and eagle numbers have led to dramatic increases in predators willing to kill grouse and plunder their nests. But predators are the least of the aggressive little grouse’s worries.
The greatest impact on overall bird numbers might have been the result of the spike in ethanol. Millions of acres of the prairie grassland habitat that is essential for their reproduction were taken out of conservation reserve programs and put back into farming practices. In 1987 there were nearly 1.7 million acres of CRP lands in South Dakota alone. By 2010 that number was cut by half a million acres.
A report was released from the South Dakota Game and Fish that tracks and plans for grouse expansion and studies population trends. It reported that the total acres of crop land in our state; mostly converted from grasslands, has increased by 2,500,000 acres over the last 40 years. But there is hope.
The brave little rooster that I caught strutting that morning while hunting for his bigger cousins has some new and positive statistics that show the possibility of a larger number of his relatives than the state has seen in some time.
Spring lek surveys are conducted each year to give an indication of adult survival after the stresses of winter mortality take out the sick and the weak. Grouse are not long-lived as a general rule with a fifty percent mortality rate each year.
A lek is reminiscent of a high school sports field where the males gather each year to show their athletic abilities. Or perhaps a more accurate image could be drawn by recalling the dance battle fought on the gym floor in West Side Story. Only there are no Sharks or Jets.
Each bird is out for his own interests.
The same fields are used year after year and by comparing the number of males on that lek from one season to the next you can make an estimate. The count conducted last spring showed the highest number of surviving birds on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in recorded history. After a third mild winter in a row, there is even more hope that there might be a growing population spreading across South Dakota’s Grasslands.